**Content Warning: This post may be a little graphic.**
Seeing the title of this post may be a little surprising to you but it’s a topic that I’ve been meaning to cover for a long time. And since I don’t have to prepare a sermon this week I thought that this would be a perfect time to work on it.
Why did I want to cover such a topic? Because it comes up a lot more than you might think in my counselling ministry. I’ve been asked the question, “Is it okay to masturbate?” many times over the years. I’ve been asked by men, women, teens, moms, dads, husbands and wives. I’ve been asked face to face by people in my home church and through e-mail by people all around the world who have contacted me through my blog. This is a relevant and important topic and I want to try to give it a proper treatment.
But since I don’t have to write a sermon this week, instead of writing it as a block of theological prose, I want to do it in the form of a conversation.
Three People One Conversation
Corrine (40): “Hi, Pastor Al. I’m the mother of a teen boy and a teen girl and I have a really personal question for you. What does the Bible say about masturbation? My son has started to take 20-minute showers and I’m starting to find laundry baskets full of sticky clothes and I’m sure he’s masturbating. My daughter probably is too, though I’ve never caught her. It makes me angry and scared and I want to yell at them and tell them to stop, but I don’t know what to say.”
Kyle (15): “Hey, Pastor Al. I’ve got a problem. Or, at least, I think it’s a problem. I don’t know. Maybe not. I know porn is bad and I’m not supposed to have sex before marriage and stuff, but what about masturbation? My school tells me it’s natural and healthy and some websites I’ve seen even tell me it’s good for my mental health, but I feel really guilty after I’ve done it. What does the Bible say about it?”
Ted (31): “G’mornin’, Pastor Al. Actually, I’m not doing very well today. I feel sad, sick, depressed, and angry. I’ve been married for a while now, and I love my wife, but my sex life is pretty much dead. Between work, the kids, her health, our busy schedules, her period, and everything else, we basically don’t do it anymore. And the last couple times we’ve done it, she’s been so unresponsive that it’s not even enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, I love her, and the rest of our marriage is pretty good, but it’s killing me that we can’t be together. I think I’m one of those men with high testosterone because I’m literally always horny. And I can hold it together for a little while, but after a few days, it’s all I can think about. I start to get angry and have sex dreams and feel irritable and depressed. That’s when I do it and I’m so sick of that cycle. I’ve been working really hard not to look at porn, though I do fail sometimes, but what about just doing it myself so I can stay sane? Am I allowed to just get myself off in the shower and be done with it? When I do I try to think of my wife. It makes me feel better for a bit – while at the same time it makes me feel guilty too. So, what do you think? Does the Bible even say anything about that kind of stuff?”
Pastor Al: “Wow, that sounds really tough, and I’m really glad you had the courage to come to me and ask about it. Not only that, I’m really proud of you that you are asking the question ‘What does the Bible say?’ because that means you want to do things God’s way and that shows humility and obedience. That’s really good. The first thing I need to ask you is this: What’s the pornography situation in your home right now? Do you have blockers on the internet or is it wide open? Is this question really about pornography or is it about masturbation?”
CKT: “Yes, we’ve got the blockers up and all that. Our house is locked down. The only place it can be accessed is through the data on the cell phones, but we have safe-guards on them and don’t have a tonne of data so that’s not really a big issue. This really is about masturbation.”
Pastor Al: “Ok, that’s good, because it’s an important distinction. What do you know already? I’m guessing you’ve already done some googling, right?”
CKT: “Some, but there are a million websites with a million different answers, and half of the response that come up are pornographic so I just gave up and came to you. But I did learn that Christians call masturbation ‘Onanism’ for some reason. What’s that all about?”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, let’s get that out of the way. Onan was a guy in the Old Testament who was killed by God because he ‘spilled his semen on the ground’ (Gen 38:9). Some people think this means that any man who ejaculates anywhere except into a woman’s vagina is sinning, but that’s now what it means. According to God’s law, if a married man died without a child, another one of his family members was obligated to marry the widow and sire a son so that the dead man’s property would be passed down to her son and the widow would be taken care of. Onan didn’t want to obey this law because he wanted the land for himself. He was happy to have sex but didn’t want to risk her getting pregnant, so whenever they had sex he pulled out. So Onan’s sin wasn’t ‘spilling his semen on the ground’, it was refusing to obey God’s law and not caring for the widow, but using her instead.”
Pastor Al: “But definitions are still important. Strictly speaking masturbation, simply put, is stimulating yourself in such a way that it produces sexual arousal. That’s it.”
CKT: “Ok, but is it a sin?”
Pastor Al: “Well, it’s not quite that simple. There’s actually no Bible verse you can go to that says that masturbation is either good or bad. There are lots of verses about sexual purity, but nothing about masturbation.”
CKT: “So it’s okay?”
Pastor Al: “Well, hold on. Let’s explore it a little bit more. It’s not that the Bible has nothing to say, it’s just that there’s no ‘gotcha verse’. Look at 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 for example. The ESV gives this section the title ‘Flee Sexual Immorality’, right? Here, let me read it to you:
‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Paul starts by saying, essentially, “Jesus has freed us from the Law that forced God’s people to eat, drink, wash, travel, clothe themselves, etc. in certain ways. Jesus fulfilled the Law and opened up the world to His people to enjoy and explore free from the restrictions of the Law which only brought guilt. But that doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever we want. Romans 6 says that Jesus doesn’t set us free to do whatever, but instead that we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Rom 6:18). That means that even though we have tonnes of freedom in Christ, far more than any Jew or other hyper-religious nuts, there are still limitations because we are not our own, we are the property of Christ and He can tell us to do what He wants. Paul talks about some of those limitations in 1 Corinthians.
We all want a ‘gotcha verse’ to make this simpler, but there isn’t one. So, since there is no Law or scripture specifically against masturbation, then that means we have to ask some more questions, and I think this passage gives us 4 really good ones: “Is masturbation helpful?” “Is masturbation dominating me?” “Does masturbation honour God’s plan for sexual purity in marriage?” “Does masturbation glorify God?”
CKT: “It sounds like you are saying that it’s bad, right? It’s hard to believe masturbation is helpful and God-glorifying!”
Pastor Al: “Not necessarily. Just because something doesn’t sound God-glorifying, doesn’t mean it isn’t. People starve themselves in fasting and that glorifies God. Police officers and soldiers kill people and that glorifies God. Parents punish and discipline their children and that glorifies God. And when doctors slice people open, fill them with poison, and blast them with radiation that causes them to be terribly sick to cure cancer – and that also glorifies God. Right?”
CKT: “Well, now I’m really confused.”
Pastor Al: “Hang in there because what we’re talking about isn’t as simple as ‘Don’t steal’ or ‘Be generous’. It’s more complicated because it has far more to do with your motives than your actions.”
CKT: “Ok, so how do I figure out the motive? From what I can tell it’s just horniness.”
Pastor Al: “Well, there’s a lot happening when someone masturbates, so let’s do a pros and cons list to see what’s actually going on behind the surface of the action. So, why do people masturbate?”
CKT: “Well, it feels good. But that’s not a good reason for anything, is it?”
Pastor Al: “It’s not a bad reason though. People do lots of things just because they feel good. People eat cake, which has very little nutritional value, but I never get asked whether the Bible says it’s ok to eat cake. People skydive and surf and look at art and get suntans and swim and get massages and back-scratches and their nails done… and none of that is in the Bible. They just do it because it feels good. That doesn’t make it wrong.”
CKT: “Ok. It also alleviates pressure. There’s a bunch of pent-up emotions inside that get some kind of release afterwards.”
Pastor Al: “Sure. Anything else?”
CKT: “Some people say it’s a good way to learn about how you get pleasure so you can enjoy sex with your partner more.”
Pastor Al: “Alright.”
CKT: “And, uh… I guess it relieves stress? I know someone who couldn’t get to sleep at night unless they did it before bed because it helped them sleep.”
Pastor Al: “Well, stress relief yes, but that person may have been addicted.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, pretty much anything can become addictive. If this person literally couldn’t stop, used it as their main source of escape, and felt compelled to keep doing it even if they didn’t want to, they were addicted.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah. Masturbation is a powerful thing. We’ve already talked about some of the good things it can provide, like physical pleasure and stress relief, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have dangers. Just like food can make you fat, exercise can ruin your body, and work can destroy your marriage, using a good thing in bad ways can cause real problems.
That’s the next question: ‘Is masturbation dominating me?’ Pastors, counsellors and mental health experts are all over the map with this topic because masturbation (especially to orgasm) has such a powerful effect. Doctors and psychiatrists will look at compulsive masturbation as a sign of potential mental, emotional, or behavioural problems. It can be a sign that there’s something happening beneath the surface that is far more serious.
When it gets out of control chronic masturbation can lead to withdrawal from life, disengaging with healthy relationships, and actually drive someone into deeper levels of depression.
God made sex feel good because He wants us to enjoy it. When our genitals are stimulated we feel pleasure, excitement, distraction, release, and our brain starts to squirt out all kinds of good-feeling chemicals like dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. That’s a wonderful gift. And it works even when we pleasure ourselves privately.
The issue is that our desire for masturbation can be masking much greater problems. The reason that we get addicted or think about it all the time isn’t necessarily because we like masturbating so much – it’s because there’s something wrong in our lives and we know that spending some time alone doing that is a guaranteed way to be free from those negative feelings for a while. It works every time.
Incidentally, that’s how all addictions start. Something’s wrong with life and the person finds a substance or activity that gives them a rush and makes them forget their problems for a time. Whether it’s shooting heroin, eating until their sick, binging Netflix, thrill-seeking, or masturbating, it’s the same obsessive drive. And then it’s not long until that addiction starts to take over healthy things in their life. They withdraw from their family, friends, church, and school so they can do it more. When they are offered positive, healthy choices – counselling, nutritious food, a board game with the family, or sex with their spouse – they say no because they don’t get the same rush as they do from their addiction. That’s when things really start to spiral.
CKT: “Well, that’s scary! I don’t think it’s at the level of addiction though. I think it’s more about alleviating the pressure. After all, we all have these biological urges inside us (given to us by God, by the way) and it’s not our fault that we want release, is it?”
Pastor Al: “No, it’s not. But for every one of our desires, God has given us a way to have them fulfilled in a righteous way. It’s our sinful nature that corrupts those desires and tries to fulfill them in sinful ways. (James 1:14-17)
Say you have a desire for power. Our sinful nature tells you to dominate people, oppress them, control them. God says, if you want real power, submit your will to mine and live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Say you have a desire for riches. Our sinful nature says to steal from others, work too much, hoard your stuff, don’t share. God says if you want real riches, tithe properly, give things away, take care of the poor, and live simply, then you’ll see treasure beyond your imagination.
God gives us a desire for tasty food, we invent refined sugar. God gives us a desire for justice, we invent revenge. God gives us a desire for peace, we punish anyone who disturbs us. God gives us a natural desire for intimate relationships and sexual release, we invent pornography and spend time away from humanity wrapped in a shield of self-stimulation.
Sometimes we get depressed, anxious, afraid, lonely, or angry and we feel bad and want a pick-me-up. God invites us to cast our cares upon Him in prayer, gives us His Word to read so we can hear His voice, gives us brothers and sisters in Christ to call, gives us the beauty of His creation to walk in, a thousand things to study in the world, and worship music to sing to lift our spirits – but instead, we lock ourselves in our bathroom alone so we can play with ourselves because we know it’s an easy way to get a hit of those feel-good brain chemicals.
So, the question comes, ‘Does masturbation honour God’s plan for the way He wants us to fulfil that desire?’”
CKT: “Ok, so I know pornography is bad, and I know there are lots of other things to do when the urge hits. And I know the importance of keeping busy and going for walks and stuff — believe me, I’ve tried! But sometimes going for a walk or listening to music or reading isn’t an option, or it isn’t helpful. And right now, in this situation, finding sexual release from a loving spouse is… just… not possible!”
Pastor Al: “Ok, so now I’m going to ask you a very personal question. What kind of thoughts go through a person’s head when they masturbate? What thoughts go through yours?”
CKT: “Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but there are a variety of things, I guess. All the porn is blocked, but I’m able to find sexual comics online. They’re not real people, just drawings, so it’s not really porn. Sometimes I read sexy stories. Or, sometimes I picture my spouse doing things that I want them to do. Sometimes I dwell on those types of things for a while, but mostly I just use them to get myself started so I can get done faster. Why, is that wrong? It’s not porn!”
Pastor Al: “You seem a little defensive. How do those things make you feel? What does your conscience say?”
CKT: “Honestly, they all feel wrong. Looking at naked drawings of people having sex seems wrong. Readings stories about people having sex seem wrong. And I feel guilty about it. But what about fanaticizing about my spouse [or future spouse]? How can that be wrong?”
Pastor Al: “There’s the operative word: ‘fantasizing’. And fantasies can be dangerous. You’re right about the sex comics and stories. They’re sinful stories about sinful actions that create sinful thoughts that affect your ability to have a holy thought life. Jesus said in Mark 7:21–23, ‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ and porn, sexual comics and stories are all defiling. When Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8 about guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, he said, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” and those comics and sexual stories are neither true nor honourable nor pure nor lovely nor commendable to others. Would you ever in a million years link to those comics on social media or give them to your small group to read? No way, right? That should tell you something.
In the same way, fantasies about your spouse are equally dangerous. That person in your mind may look like your spouse, but they aren’t, are they? They do and say things your spouse wouldn’t do or say, right? Essentially, what you’ve done, is dressed a porn star or prostitute in your spouse’s skin and have made them perform for you. And that’s damaging to your soul and your marriage. It causes resentment, bitterness, anger, and lust to swell in you because your reality will never be the same as your fantasy. It is, without question, a way for Satan to drive a wedge between you and your spouse, and you and the God who provided that spouse for you.”
CKT: “I’ve never thought of it like that.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, it’s serious business. Ok, so what have we covered so far?”
CKT: “Well, the first question was ‘Is masturbation helpful?’ and we came up with a few ways it can be like stress relief and learning about your body. The second question was, ‘Is masturbation dominating me?’ which led to talking about addiction and how masturbation can be a sign of greater problems. The third question was, ‘Does masturbation honour God’s plan for sexual purity in marriage?’ and that really seemed to put a nail in the coffin, didn’t it? It’s hard to see how a person can masturbate while keeping their minds totally clean and pure and holy, right?”
Pastor Al: “That’s definitely a problem. But it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. After all one could say the same thing about sports. Some people get super competitive or trash-talk or start to hate the people on other teams. Or we could say the same thing about alcohol. Some people can have a glass of wine and it’s no big deal at all. Other people know that they can’t do it because it’s a real problem for them. Just because some people get super-triggered by something doesn’t mean it’s bad for everyone. That’s what Romans 14 is all about, right?”
CKT: “Ok, so that only leaves the last question. ‘Does masturbation glorify God?’”
Pastor Al: “Right. So what do you think the answer is?”
CKT: “Well, based on what we’ve been talking about I would say that since there’s no verse that says God forbids it, and since there are some good things that come from it, I suppose it could glorify God when we do it. Boy, that’s weird to say out loud. But there seem to be lots and lots of ways that it can be dangerous or addictive or sinful and therefore not glorify God. Is that right?”
Pastor Al: “Pretty good! Most people wish God would be super-clear about this kind of thing, but the fact is, He’s not. God has given us freedom to enjoy this world and glorify Him in millions of ways. Some of those ways are done in relationship with others, like serving, counselling, corporate worship, teaching, being a parent or child, or being married – but some things are done totally alone. God even says in Matthew 6 that things like doing good deeds, giving, and a lot of our praying should be done in such a way that no one ever sees it. The Bible says that everything we do – no matter how wonderful or mundane, how public or secret – can be a continual, living, holy, acceptable sacrifice of worship to God – and that could, potentially also include masturbation.”
CKT: “Really? How?”
Pastor Al: “Well, let’s do a little checklist. Masturbation could glorify God if:
- You keep your mind out of the gutter and only think of things that are excellent, lovely, praiseworthy, true, etc.
- You are not addicted to it, but are being self-controlled in your use of it.
- You are not choosing it instead of other, better things like time with your loved ones, worship, prayer, scripture, church, counselling, etc.
- You’re doing it as a way to help yourself or others to be more holy.
CKT: “Wait, what? Masturbate so you can be more holy?”
Pastor Al: “Well, 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 says that sexual frustration is a path to temptation and sin, right? That’s why we get married. It says,
‘But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 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. 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.’
The best way for a person to deal with their sexual urges is with their spouse. And a spouse should do what they can to help out. But if a spouse simply cannot do anything because they are too sick or infirm, then it seems to me that the next step is to have a conversation with the spouse about masturbation. After all, when you get married your body isn’t just your own, it’s owned by God and your spouse too.
So, if you can get right with God about masturbating, then the next step is to get right with your spouse. If they say that you can do it because it’s going to help you and your relationship, and you can do it in such a way that you’re not fanaticizing about other people or some porned-up version of your spouse, then why not?
Or, say you’re not married but in a constant state of distraction because your hormones are totally going crazy. You’ve prayed for help, read your bible, are practicing self-control, are trying to keep your thoughts pure, but your sexuality is ever-present and there’s no way to get married. There’s nothing in scripture that says you can’t masturbate. Yes, there’s a laundry list of warnings about how you can do it wrong – but that’s true about a lot of things.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution and I’m not saying it’s right for everyone. All I’m saying is that according to what I read in scripture, there is a way to masturbate in a way that glorifies God and helps holiness. Maybe, sometimes, one thing you can do to help yourself to serve God and others better is to masturbate.
Think of it like having a cup of coffee or taking an afternoon nap. You’ve got somewhere to be at 3pm and nothing to do between now and then. You’re tired but you’ve got your work done and have some free time. You’ve done your devos, had a snack, chatted with your family, and now you’re alone. You’re not bored or sad or angry or depressed, you’re not trying to escape life or create artificial joy, you just know that the 3pm event is going to take some energy. So you have a choice. Make a pot of coffee and have a couple mugs or go to bed and have a nap. Neither is wrong and you’re motives are good.
Do some people abuse coffee? Sure. Do some people sleep too much? Sure. But that’s not your problem. You’re just doing what you think is right and you know that God, your family, and your spirit are at peace with that decision. That cup of coffee or that nap will bring glory to God. Maybe masturbation can do the same thing for some people.”
CKT: “Ok, Pastor Al. I think I have some thinking and praying to do. Some of that is way outside my field of experience and I really need to chew on that. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this. Please pray that I make the right decision and honour God with how I deal with it.”
Pastor Al: “Will do, CKT. Have a great day! Let me know if you have any more questions.”
I got a lot of help from:
- Butman, R. E. (1999). Masturbation. In D. G. Benner & P. C. Hill (Eds.), Baker encyclopedia of psychology & counseling (2nd ed., p. 726). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
A couple weeks ago I gave a sermon on the topic of sexual immorality which led to some pretty strong and varied reactions. Some people appreciated confronting the topic of pornography from the pulpit while others claimed it was.
I want you to know that whenever I preach my intention is never to be intentionally shocking or vulgar, but simply to present what scripture teaches. None of the criticism I received was that I used harsh language or was in theological error and I ran the sermon past a few people and they agreed. However, while I did present the Gospel as the answer to the problem, one criticism that did touch home was that I may have presented the problem without giving many practical solutions.
One person said, “Ok, so everything is dark, but what’s the solution? Where’s the hope?” Of course, as I said, our ultimate hope is in Christ. The only way to be free from the burden of sin and to escape the trap of sexual immorality is to admit we are sinners, fall down at the cross, and ask for forgiveness and help from God. But there is a very practical, applicable, useful tool to help with the problem of an out of control, sinful, sexually immoral appetite: marriage.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5.
[I want to say up front that though I used a bunch of sources, I help for this sermon from one of John MacArthur’s messages called “Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness”]
“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 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. 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.”
Marriage in Corinth
We’ve already covered a few times the state of the culture in the city of Corinth. And the Corinthian church needed some instruction as to how they should handle living there. We can sympathize, right? Sin, it seems, has corrupted everything! And so, a believer, wanting to honour Jesus, flee sin, and be obedient to God, is often tempted to just throw everything out. They feel tempted so they figure that they will just get rid of everything. Move to the country, turn off the internet, break the TV, avoid the theatre, don’t date, don’t go to the mall, never talk to anyone except Christians… just avoid everything.
Some Christians in Corinth thought the same thing and some of them decided that the solution to avoiding the sin of sexual immorality at least would be that Christians should simply avoid marriage altogether. Corinth was a mess of immorality of all kinds, but what the city was most famous for, even in the pagan world, was how messed up they were sexually, and this affected the state of marriage too.
Weddings in ancient Greece actually looked a lot like they do today. A lot of our traditions come from them. Rich people had ceremonies, wore rings, had veils, carried flowers, even had cake.
Slaves, of which there were many in the Corinthian church, weren’t even allowed to get married, but if they did find someone they wanted to be with they could ask their owner if they could have a “tent partner” to be with sometimes. But they couldn’t commit to one another because there was no guarantee one of them wouldn’t be sold and have to leave.
In the general culture, the divorce rate was high and morality was very low. Like today, sleeping around, adultery, cheating, and serial monogamy was common. A normal citizen could even buy a wife if they wanted to. There was even, around biblical times, a sort of women’s liberation things that started, which tried to switch it around so that the women would do all the same things to the men. It was a real mess.
And so there were some big questions about what Christians should do. Keep in mind that those being saved and joining the church were coming from this culture completely. They didn’t grow up with the judeo-Christian ethic like we did – but came from a totally corrupted culture. And it was natural for them, seeking to want to be good Christians, to think that simply avoiding sex and marriage altogether would be best.
So here we see them sending a question to the Apostle Paul to ask what Jesus has to say on the subject. See verse 1: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” That was their solution. They had a lot of situations. They had single Christians who wanted to get married but weren’t sure if that was a good idea, Christians married to unsaved spouses and weren’t sure what to do, married people who had a bunch of sinful habits they didn’t know what to do with, divorced people who didn’t know if they were allowed to get remarried, and a whole bunch of dads with angry daughters who were being told they weren’t allowed to get married at all. There was a lot of mixed teachings about this. Everything from “There should be no marriage but just free love and sex for everyone” to “no one should ever get married or have sex ever” – and that continues today among cults and different religions, even in those claiming Christianity. So, Paul, what does Jesus say we’re supposed to do?!
Paul’s answers take each of the groups in turn. He takes on the married people first, so let’s do that. I want to talk to the single people too, but since Paul talks to the married people first, that’s how we’re going to take it.
To the Married
Celibacy and singleness is ok with the Bible and ok with God. It frees you for greater missions in God’s kingdom and allows you to remain focused on serving Him and others. The Bible presents singleness as something to be honoured and godly. But, for most people, since sexual temptation is a real problem, the solution is to get married. Singleness is good unless it leads you into sexual sin. For most people, trying to avoid sexual sin is going to be really hard, because marriage is intended to be the norm. Marriage is a gift given to us by God to be a tool to help us grow closer to Him, learn about ourselves, become a better disciple, practice all the things the Bible says about serving, forgiving, self-control, etc… but it’s also the primary way that we are to deal with sexual temptation.
John MacArthur gives 6 reasons the Bible says God gave us marriage. Procreation, Pleasure, Purity, Provision, Partnership and Picture.
God gave us marriage so that we could Procreate, literally to make babies and carry on the species. He also gave us marriage for Pleasure, because it’s an amazing experience to be with another person for life. He gave us marriage so we could Provide for someone else, living as a servant to them, and so we could have a Partner that helps take care of us. And, God gave us marriage because, as we see all through the Bible, it is a Picture of Christ and the church.
The one we are talking about today is that God gave us marriage so we could pursue Purity and be more godly as we channel our sexual appetite into the right place. Fighting our natural appetites, continually sinning, and feeling guilty and shameful all the time is not a great life, so God allows us to fulfil that appetite in a pure and godly way in marriage.
However, just like those in ancient Corinth, we all today carry sexual baggage into our marriages. Histories with sexual partners, pornography habits, romantic fantasy’s we’ve concocted, and whatever else we have going on in our brains. And both are sinners. Even if we come into the marriage completely virginal, having never seen or read anything bad, we are still sinners and that’s going to cause problems – and it does, right?
The partners have different appetites and both get frustrated. One has expectations of the other that make them feel uncomfortable or simply can’t be done. One accuses the other of being too aggressive while the other is accused of being cold and unloving. What is supposed to be a gift from God, and the means by which we escape the trap of sexual immorality, ends up being a wedge that comes between the Christian husband and wife. Which leads to anger, hurt feelings, loneliness, temptation, thoughts of divorce… and more.
What is the solution for a Christian who has committed their life to Jesus? I believe that a big part of the solution is to have a proper, Biblical understanding of sex within marriage – and how to have good sex. Our pornographic culture has corrupted sex in every possible way, and much of that thinking has seeped into our own, and so 1 Corinthians 7 gives a mini-marriage seminar.
The Power of Sex
What does the Bible say here? Well, first it frames the sexual union as a tool to escape temptation. “…because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Marriage is good for many things. We learn a lot being married, but another way it is good is that it gives us an outlet for our sexual energies. Most people, except those gifted with the ability to be single and celibate, will find it almost impossible to avoid sexual temptation. Not only because of our inward drives but because sexual enticement is everywhere in the culture.
So it is natural for your spouse to have a sexual appetite and for them to want to have sex with you. That’s normal and good. To be sexually desirous of your spouse, and for your spouse to desire you, is a good thing. And so God says, “Since there is so much sexual immorality within you and around you, have my blessing to have sex with each other!”
Now, some people read these verses and think God says “my spouse has to do whatever I want, whenever I want it!” Nope, that’s selfish and sinful. Remember, your marriage is a picture of Jesus and the church. When has Jesus ever forced Himself on you or made you do anything? When has He made you feel He was abusive or made you feel bad about yourself? Or, for that matter, ever withheld his love because you haven’t earned it? Never. He is always inviting, loving, and seeking the best for His bride.
I know far too many married couples for which sex isn’t a joy but something that divides them. They love their spouse, serve them, enjoy them, but when it comes to the bedroom there’s a disconnect there and it drives a wedge between them and creates a lot of resentment and temptation.
One problem is that people aren’t introspective enough to be able to express how they are really feeling inside. Vulgar, simple, unhelpful, ungodly language has replaced mutual honesty and self-reflection to the point where not only is our spouse confused and upset by what we say, but even we don’t even know how we feel!
Forgive the phrase, but in my experience the most, the average person is able to come up with, especially guys, to describe their feelings is the phrase, “I’m horny. I want sex.” That’s the best they can do. Why? Because it’s what culture has taught them. Sex is an impulse to be acted upon, a means and end unto itself. We want sex so we should have sex. That’s far, far, far too simplistic and even wrong.
When the Bible says, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” it’s saying that a husband or wife has the right to expect to fulfil their sexual appetite with their spouse. Now, I’m not saying that it’s a no-holds-barred, do anything they want, free-for-all in the bedroom. We’ll talk about that in a minute. The idea here is that it is normal, right and godly for a husband or wife to want to have sex with their spouse, and it is abnormal, wrong, and ungodly for a husband or wife to “deprive” one another. It’s sin.
But we need to do better at expressing ourselves in this. I want you to do better in this so that you can be closer to your spouse and so that they will understand more of what is happening inside of you. The accusation is often, “My spouse always wants sex! It’s too much! There must be something wrong with them.” But more often than not, it’s not the act of sex that they want – and even they don’t really realize it.
What they really are is lonely, angry, tempted, stressed out, sad, confused or afraid. They feel unattractive, unimportant, unaccepted – and being intimate with their spouse is a very good way to repair that. Sex is reparative in that way.
You might think, “Well, shouldn’t they be praying about that? Why do I have to have sex with them to make them feel less lonely or sad or unimportant? Can’t I just read them a Bible verse and tell them to do their devos?”
Look at verse 5 and see how the Bible connects sexuality to spirituality, especially prayer. “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.”
The implication here is that if the marriage is being deprived of sexual intimacy then not only will the couple’s relationship with each other suffer, but so will their relationship with God! Effectively it says, “Don’t stop having sex. Don’t deprive one another. Not because the act of sex is so important, but because sexual temptation is real and that depravation will put a wedge between your spouse and God! Sure, maybe you stop for a short time of mourning or fasting or some other special spiritual occasion, but then get back together quick because Satan is right there waiting to tempt you both. And you know that you lack self-control in this area – that’s why you are married! To deprive yourself or your spouse of sex is spiritually dangerous.”
So, my hope here is that each of you do better in expressing yourselves in this, and learn more about yourself. Say you have a hard day at work or at home, things just went wrong, and nothing’s working out. You feel a tug towards sexual temptation? Why? Because it will make you feel better. So when you finally see your spouse again, do you say, “Hey, honey, let’s go have sex?” No. What you should do in that moment is share your heart “I had an awful day today. Let me tell you about it. I’m frustrated, angry, tired and grumpy. I’m all twisted up inside.” What would be a natural response from a loving spouse? Comfort, right? A hug, an affirmation that they are good at their job… but another natural response is physical intimacy.
In 2 Samuel 12:24 David and Bathsheba’s son had just died and they were both in mourning and it says, “Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her…” David sought comfort in God and then, part of the way he comforted his wife was to hold her close and be intimate with her. Sex brings comfort to people.
If our spouse feels lonely, stressed out, unimportant, or unattractive… then not only do you talk to them, affirm them, pray with them, and be with them – but also to make the choice to be physically intimate, to have sex with them, as a way to comfort and help them. Sex relieves tension, release pleasure chemicals, builds intimacy, and is an escape from the stresses of life. It’s a powerful tool to help your spouse deal with what they are going through and wipe away a lot of the cobwebs that have gathered in their soul. Offering sex to your spouse is an amazing spiritual gift to them.
And then, after being together, they will often have more confidence, energy, and joy. By removing the burden of sexual temptation, and connecting with them physically, you will have taken a huge weight off of their soul. And, in equal measure, denying them, depriving them, places a huge weight on their soul. You are sinning against them and setting them, and yourself, your marriage and your family, up for failure. It is literally your duty to take care of one another in this way so you can be free from the distractions of temptation that lead to sin.
Good Marital Sex
Now, I don’t want to leave off there, but want you to turn with me to 1 Corinthians 13, which many people call “The Love Chapter”. Contextually this comes while Paul is talking about how Christians can serve one another in church, but it readily applies to how we can serve each other in marriage as well. And, I would argue, it makes an excellent outline for how Christians should approach marital sex. What does good sex look like?
A lot of questions come to pastors about this: Can I do this or that? Is this or that allowed? He or she likes this but I don’t, do I have to? Those are good questions, but let’s look briefly at 1 Corinthians 13 as an outline for what good, godly, joyful, pleasurable, Christian sex looks like. Go to verse 4. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Let’s go through those together looking at it through the lens of marital sex.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Let’s go through those together looking at it through the lens of marital sex.
“Love is patient.” Good marital sex is patient. That means that you take your time, wait for your spouse to be ready, and not try to whatever you want out of it as fast as you can. Usually, one of the spouses takes longer to get “in the mood” than the other – often the woman, but not always. This means that you don’t jump right to intercourse, but spend the day sending love notes, take time to talk, do some wooing, hugging, kissing, and whatever else they like that shows love and gets their motor going. Sometimes this means being very patient while your spouse works through some physical or emotional issues too.
By the way, the other side is choosing to be receptive to this. If you are the spouse that takes a while to get warmed up, then you’ll need to choose to be receptive to their advances. Allow yourself to start you thinking of your spouse, let yourself be wooed, get rid of some distractions, and open yourself up to the other person. You’ll enjoy it a lot more if you do.
“Love is… kind”. Good marital sex shows kindness. There is no desire to hurt or subject or degrade. Kindness takes the initiative to respond to the other person’s needs. What makes them happy, comfortable, feel pleasure. We do this when we have people over to our homes, right? “What do you take in your coffee? Is the room at the right temperature for you? Can I get you a pillow? Would you like the comfortable chair?” We should have the same type of thoughts of kindness when being intimate with our spouse.
“Love… does not envy”. In other words, we are not jealous that someone else, or even our spouse, is seeming to have a better time than us. We aren’t trying to get out of our husband or wife that which we had in a previous relationship or we’ve seen in fantasies.
All of these, by the way, are the opposite of what culture and pornography teach. Remember how I said that people are using pornography as their sex education? They are learning the literal opposite of how God designed sex to work best. Pornographic sex isn’t patient – it’s immediate. There is no relationship, no wooing, no love. Everyone is ready to go 100% of the time. Pornographic sex is not kind. It’s violent and selfish. Pornographic sex is built on envy – it’s adultery with the eyes, wanting that which others have, comparing ourselves to an unrealistic ideal.
“Love does not… boast; it is not arrogant or rude”. Pornographic sex is full of arrogant, selfish boasting, turning sex into competition and conquest. Good, godly, joyful, sex isn’t trying to compete, but to mutually lift each other up! Trying to outdo each other in how you can serve and please one another. Just think of the euphemisms that culture has used to describe the act of sex. We go from “making love” to “hump” to “bump” to “knock” to “hit” to “smash”; each more selfish and more rude. Love isn’t rude, seeking to humiliate or offend, it is mean to uplift.
“Love… does not insist on its own way.” Good marital sex isn’t about getting whatever pleasure we can get out of our spouse, using them as a sexual object to fulfil our fantasies. It is exactly the opposite. Good sex is focused on the other person’s desires, comfort, and enjoyment. That’s one thing that the Bible means when it says, “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.” Sure, we share our likes and dislikes, but if both parties are more concerned for the other than they are for themselves – then they will not only enjoy themselves more, but will be practicing humility and service which honours God.
“Love… is not irritable or resentful.” A lot of husbands and wives carry a lot of anger in their hearts toward their mate because of what happens in the bedroom. They are mad because they aren’t “getting enough” or because it’s “too much”. They get irritated and resent their spouse for the occasional, playful sexual touch outside the bedroom – a quick kiss, a pat on the butt – and instead of enjoying it, they get upset. If that’s happening to you, you really need to talk to your spouse about it because the issue isn’t the kiss, the hug, or the pat – it’s something deeper. There’s some anger, bitterness, hurt feelings, fear, resentment that goes way deeper.
Along with this comes the sin of using sex as a reward or a weapon. Sex between spouses is NEVER to be a reward for good behaviour and denial is ESPECIALLY never used as a weapon! Both of those are sin and will lead to spiritual danger. If you have ever tried to manipulate your spouse with sex, you are in sin. If you have ever said the words, “Fine, just do it, I’ll just lie here.” or “Fine, if you won’t do it for me, I’ll do it myself!”, I can’t tell you how terribly hurtful that was to hear. That was you sinning against your spouse. Good sex cannot have irritation or resentment in it. You need to be honest with each other, how you feel, what’s going on inside, work out that underlying problem, and then come together having forgiven one another!
“Love… does not rejoice at wrongdoing.” Most other translations say, “Keeps no record of wrongs.” If you are keeping track of how long it’s been, how many times, and how long it lasted, so you can throw that back in their face – then you are in sin. If you are holding bitterness in your heart and then giving your spouse the cold shoulder, you are in sin. If you are using your spouse’s rejection as an excuse to get your sexual fulfilment from other people – by looking where you shouldn’t or building a close relationship with someone you’re not married to – then you are in sin. You can’t use your spouses’ “record of wrongs” as your excuse to sin. It will destroy your love for them, and your ability to be intimate with them.
“Love… rejoices with the truth.” Good marital sex has its foundation in the truth! We tell the truth about how we are feeling, what we like and dislike, our fears and desires, and what’s on our hearts – and it builds intimacy and improves the sexual relationship. Before marriage we are honest about our sexual history and the baggage we are bringing in there, and then during the marriage we are honest about when we make mistakes and fall to sexual sin.
Another side of truthfulness is the sin of pretending when you are with your spouse. Either pretending they are someone else – which is adultery – or simply pretending you are feeling something you are not. Making sounds and looking a certain way because you think that’s what you are supposed to do for your “performance”. Teaching yourself to be someone you are not, or asking your spouse to be something they are not, will damage your soul and break your intimacy! Some people tell you to pretend and fantasize to make your sex better, but you can’t pretend and be truthful at the same time – and that pretending will cause bitterness and confusion and lead to a fractured relationship and bad sex.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Good sex comes from love. Love comes from feeling safe, protected, trusted, hopeful, anticipating, and full of the knowledge that the person you are with is committed to you, never going to leave, will endure anything with you, and will persevere with you to the end – no matter what happens in life or in the bedroom. You can’t have real love if you think the other person will let you down, distrusts you, or will leave you. That’s why marital love, built on the covenant of marriage, is so much better than casual hookups. It’s infinitely deeper.
I know this is a lot to chew on today, but I really want you to think about this. We’ll talk about single and unmarried folks next week, but married people, have you been honest with yourself and your spouse about sex in marriage? Are you doing your duty to help each other flee sexual sin? Are you truly “making love” or is there a wall between you, even while you are in bed together? Talk to each other. Go read 1 Corinthians 7 and 13 and talk about it together – humbly, openly, prayerfully. I want each of you to be free from this temptation, and for you to have all the enjoyment that God wants to give you in sex – without sin getting in the way. It’s His gift to us, but it sometimes takes a lot of work. I encourage you to do that work this week.
Handout / Small Group Questions:
I need you to do a little, mental legwork this morning and recall the last few sermons, because, in truth, they along with today’s is really altogether one sermon. Part of me longs for the days when preachers would be expected to preach for more than an hour at a time, and then got another crack at the topic during the evening service. But, sadly, those days are gone and I’m not a good enough speaker to hold your attention for that long anyway – so we make due.
It’s been a challenge for me to address the beginning of 1 Corinthians 5, and the topic of human sexuality, in a comprehensive manner, because I felt we needed a good introduction to the topic before jumping in. However, leaving weeks in between sermons has its disadvantages in that it’s easy to forget what was already said.
A couple weeks ago I gave the introduction to the sermon as I spoke on Jesus’ response to the Woman Caught in Adultery and the importance of remembering that Jesus amazingly gracious and loving toward those who have broken His law, even with repeated instances of sexual sin. Last week I gave the middle of the sermon as I moved from the forgiveness found in Jesus to the reminder that even though God is gracious, He does have a standard by which He expects humanity to live. Jesus didn’t come to let anyone do whatever they want as long as no one gets hurt, but to save us from our sins and help us live His way instead. We ended last week by making a transition from the introduction to the main topic by talking about the Greek word PORNEIA, the “junk drawer” word used to describe all forms of sexual sin that fall outside of God’s design for humanity.
And now, building off of all that, we move into a bit more meat on the topic, building a theology of human sexuality, based on what God expects of us. It would be easier (and more fun) for me to go on a diatribe against all the ways we get this wrong but that would be forgetting what I said at first; we need to know the authentic article before we can understand the counterfeit. So that’s what I want to do today. Look at the biblical view of human sexuality.
The Big Deal of Sexual Sin
So, why is sexual sin such a big deal? Is it because it’s so damaging and destructive to humanity? Is it the danger of addiction, disease or ruined relationships? Is it because the church is prudish and hates it when people have fun? You’ve probably heard that sexual sin is just like any other sin, that it’s no worse than any other, so why should we spend so much time talking about it… but actually, sexual sin does have a special category in scripture.
Let’s read 1 Corinthians 6:18, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.”
That puts sexual sin into a different category. But why, what makes sexual sin so special?
It comes down to God’s original design for humanity, and the huge importance of marriage in the Bible – the physical union of two people that represents a spiritual union, which in turn, represents a picture of Jesus’ relationship to His church. That’s a big concept, isn’t it?
Let’s take it apart.
We’ll start with the context of the verse we just read. Start at verse 13:
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
A Mystical Union
First, I want you to notice the interplay between the physical and the spiritual nature of sex. In verse 1 we see “The body”, which is physical. When the Lord saves us, it’s not just a spiritual salvation, but a renewal of our whole being – emotional, spiritual and physical. He saves our heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection demonstrated that after we die, we won’t live in eternity as spiritual beings, but with resurrected, perfect, physical bodies like Jesus had. Therefore, when we get saved we don’t merely turn our hearts over to the Lordship of Jesus, but our bodies as well.
But then it goes deeper in verse 15 and moves from the physical to the spiritual. Our physical bodies, which it says later are similar to the physical “temple of the Holy Spirit”, are also connected spiritually to Jesus. Our bodies are “members of Christ”. Elsewhere, as in Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12, and Romans 12, Christians are called the “Body of Christ”, basically meaning we are, as individuals and as a church, the eyes, hands, and feet of Jesus in this world. We are, in a real sense, the physical manifestation of the Word of God in this world. Most often, when God wants to do something, He doesn’t do it with a mighty miracle but instead works through the people of His church. It’s just as miraculous, but far more subtle. To be “members of Christ” means we are both spiritually and physically united with Jesus in a very real, very intimate way.
And so, it says, how horrible it would be, how out of place, how ruinous, that someone who’s body is united to Jesus, would unite their body with a prostitute’s? “Never!” Paul shouts!
Two Become One
In verse 16 the argument is made against sexual sin this way: “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” Our worship of God, the Lordship of Christ, His relationship to the church, and our salvation is all tied to the picture of human marriage and sexuality. You’ll notice that the words “The two will become one flesh” is written is quotes. That’s because it’s a quote from Genesis 2:24. Let’s read the whole of the context there:
“Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed 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. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 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. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 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.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2:18-25)
This is the first marriage and is the perfect picture of how humanity was intended to exist. Man was created by God and designed to be incomplete without woman. Adam stood in the perfection of creation, in the presence of God, and was incomplete. God showed Adam every animal He had created, lions, bears, dogs, cats, and among them none were found that were a proper helper. And after that great parade, Adam knew it too. I wonder if he, standing in Eden, had then felt a sense of lack; that something was missing.
And so God made for Adam a complement, a helper, a being who would be his equal in dignity and worth. Not another animal, but one like Him – but not exactly like him. Not a copy, but a partner, a companion. Notice how God phrases it, “I will make helper fit for him.” The word “helper” does not imply weaker or stronger. And “fit for him”, doesn’t mean “like him”, but “matching him”, like to opposing puzzle pieces. God didn’t make a clone, but a compliment.
In chapter 1:27 it says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” It required both man and woman to represent God’s image. It even uses the words “male” and “female” not “man” and “woman”, to express the importance of the difference found in both genders.
They, together, as a complimenting pair, would be united spiritually to God and spiritually to one another. And in their sexual union before God, one “fitting” the other, would be the pattern for all human sexual relationships, taking them from two separate beings and creating “one flesh”. From that point on, as physical and spiritual images of God, humans were to grow up, leave their parents, bind themselves to a spouse, and form an exclusive, covenanted, sexual union.
God as Husband, Church as Bride
Let’s take a moment to explore theme that because it’s important. The picture of marriage in scripture is always an exclusive covenant. Why? Because it’s an image of God’s relationship with us.
All through scripture, God’s relationship with His people is framed as the image of a husband and wife. God and Jesus are both represented as husbands and believers as the bride. It’s one of the most important ways that God has given us to understand his relationship with us – which is why, when people start messing with marriage, human sexuality, or gender, it is such a huge problem!
Marriage isn’t something humans came up with to express their love for one another. It’s not a cultural creation meant to celebrate mutual affection and legally unite two people’s finances and tax situation. Marriage was given to us by God as one of the main images by which we would understand how He feels about us, deals with us, and commits to us.
Check out how God speaks to His people in these passages:
- “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name…” (Isa 54:5)
- “…as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isa 62:5),
- “I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.” (Hos 2:19)
- Jesus calls himself a “bridegroom” multiple times (Matthew 9:15; 22:25; John 3:29), and at the very end of the Bible, when Jesus comes again, it says there will be the great “marriage supper of the Lamb” where God presides over a grand wedding and the bride of Christ (the church) presents herself in clothes of “fine linen, bright and pure”. (Revelation 19:6-9)
The love a man has for His wife is only a pale imitation of God’s love for His people. The protective emotions he feels for her, the concern he has for losing her, the betrayal he feels when she cheats on him, the pain he feels when she suffers, the desire to make her life better, to provide for her, to encourage her, to please her, to see her smile, the jealousy he feels, wanting her all to himself; these powerful, overwhelming, primal feelings, are all merely tiny glimpses of how God feels about His people, how Jesus feels about the church.
This is most profoundly pictured in the Old Testament book of Hosea where God calls the prophet to do something very difficult to show the nation what He’s going through. It says in Hosea 1:2,
“When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’”
In other words, Hosea’s marriage was to be an image of God and His people.
Hosea goes and finds a prostitute named Gomer, takes her off the streets, marries her, and has three children with her. But, as predicted, Hosea’s wife cheats on him. She runs away, sells herself into prostitution again, and Hosea is forced to buy her back from her slave owner. After buying her back, he begs her to stay, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.”
The narrative story is interspersed among prophecies from God, showing His anger, pain, frustration, sadness… but also His desire to get His bride back at any cost! He declares that he has the right to divorce her, to write her off, forget about her and find a new bride, but He refuses to do that because they are married and He loves her! Yes, there would be a cost, and the bride would go through much suffering before it was over, but in the end there would be reconciliation and restoration! Not because she deserved it – far from – but because of the husband’s commitment to the marriage and the great love He has for her. He would do anything to win her back.
My favourite part of the book comes in Hosea 2:13-16. Let me read it to you.
“…I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the LORD. Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. And in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’…”
There’s no one that can tear the heart out of someone chest like your spouse. The image of marriage here is one where not only does the wife cheat on him, but runs off for no reason and gives herself to man after man, wandering the streets in the most shameless and erotic clothes, partying with every disgusting, deplorable, degenerate man she could find, until she is ruinous to the point where she’s even forgotten her husband’s name. She gets herself in such trouble that she ends up like the prodigal son, except instead, she sells herself as a sexual slave.
And what is the husband’s response? To buy her back at whatever cost so she can be free from danger. And then, amazingly, to “allure her” meaning to re-seduce her, to win her back with romance so she will love Him again! To “speak kindly to her”, literally “speak to her heart”. To give her back her vineyards, and to make her “Valley of Achor”, which means “valley of trouble” into a such a distant memory that she sees it as the “door of hope”. He’s going to show her so much love that it will be like when they were newlyweds!
Why would He do this? Is He a sucker for punishment? Is He in some kind of weird, abusive, co-dependent relationship with humanity that He needs us in order to feel good, no matter how bad we treat Him? Sure, He loves us, but is that the only reason?
No. He does it because He has promised to. He made a covenant with us. He is in an exclusive, covenant, promised, marriage bond with His people, and He will never leave them, divorce them, forsake them, or abandon them. He loved us so much He was willing to trade His Son for us – His adulterous bride. But not only out of love. He redeemed us from slavery by the blood of Jesus because He promised He would always be there for His bride.
A Spiritual Picture
This is why the sacredness of marriage and human sexuality is so important to believers, and why corrupting it is such a big deal. Man and woman, male and female, in the holy, exclusive, covenant bond of marriage, show the image of God and paint a portrait of Jesus’ relationship to the church. It’s a very, very important illustration that God has given us.
When society messes with that image, it messes up the narrative of all that God is trying to teach us through it. God set it up the way He wanted and then made natural and scriptural laws to ensure it remained a strong image for humanity to look at for all time. This is why Christian theologians often argue that there is no such thing as same-sex marriage, polygamous or polyandrous marriage, group marriage, bigamous marriage, open marriage, or whatever else people come up with… because by definition a “marriage” is literally the “union of a man and woman for life”. It can’t be anything else because nothing else fits the description or image God created.
It is our sinful nature to try to improve upon, change, or personalize what God has already settled. We want to make ourselves the special case. We think our feelings, opinions, desires, emotions, or preclusions give us the right to negotiate different versions of what God has set up.
- “My marriage isn’t working out and I have feelings for another person, therefore I have the right to follow my feelings and marry someone else. I can’t be held accountable for how I feel.”
- “My spouse isn’t fulfilling my sexual desires, therefore I have the right to have them satisfied a different way. It’s their fault for not doing it, and God’s fault for not taking away these feelings.”
- “I have a strong biological urge to have sex, therefore I must follow through on that urge, regardless of who it is with. It’s not my fault I have these urges.”
Our feelings have very little to do with it because human sexuality is much bigger than our opinions or urges. God has given the gift of sex to be used one, singular way, because that is the way that gives Him the most glory, teaches us the most about Him, and helps us understand the way of salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Messing with God’s plan for marriage and sex messes with God’s image and with the Gospel!
Handout / Small Group Questions:
These examples of knock-off products are pretty funny and easy to spot, but it’s not always so innocent.
High-end art and fashion are constantly having to fight against forgeries. I read this week that fake fashion, which range from illegal knock-offs sold in shady ways to big companies stealing each others’ designs, costs the industry billions of dollars.
Art forgery has a similar problem as artists try to replicate the style of famous artists like Picaso, Monet, and Renoir, and then sell their new paintings for a lot of money. John Myatt, before he was arrested, was able to do it 200 times, even forging the certificates of authenticity, and was so good at it that famous auction houses like Sothebys and Christie’s sold his work for thousands of dollars. The conspiracy ran so deep that the gallery he worked with actually went as far as altering the records of genuine masterpieces so they would more closely match the forgeries.
Experts should have seen the difference sooner. It’s been said a thousand times, but it remains true, that the only way to spot a forgery is to be an expert the real thing. There are innumerable ways to counterfeit art, money, or fashion these days, but there is no way to turn a new painting into a 16th century original.
Canada has one of the most difficult pieces of money to try to counterfeit, so I looked up some of the measures that they have used to make it harder for people to counterfeit. I saw right on the Bank of Canada website under “Counterfeit Prevention” how they keep our money secure. First, it encourages everyone to check the money often. At stores, banks, and in personal transactions, they say people should carefully examine the bills, large or small. But examine them for what? Their next point is to “Know Your Notes” which says, “Security features are helpful only if you use them. To fight counterfeiting, the Bank offers free training materials to help the public, businesses, and police agencies use the security features in genuine bank notes. If you know your notes, you’ll be able to detect a counterfeit at a glance and protect yourself from fraud.”[i]
For example, every bill has a shiny section on the edge that is hard to replicate. It also has fancy squares on the edges that tell machines what denomination it is. They actually have a piece of metal in them too, somewhere. One of the coolest ones is that And, if you shine a light through the little white section under the word Canada, you will see a face appear on the bill and the number completed.
It goes on to tell people that passing counterfeit money is illegal and then tells us what we should do when we are offered a counterfeit bill – and these are great:
First, “Assess the situation to ensure that you are not at risk.” Probably good advice because forgers are usually bad-guys who do bad things.
Next, “Politely refuse the note and explain that you suspect that it may be counterfeit. Ask for another note (and check it too).” That’s good too. I like how the Bank of Canada officially tells people to be polite. So Canadian. “No thank you, I don’t want fake money because not only is it not worth anything, but I could get in trouble for using it. Sorry, may I have the real thing, please?”
Next, “Advise the person to check the note with the local police.” Also good advice. “You should check with the authorities here. Something’s fishy and you’re being misled and misleading others. You’re actions or inactions are harming individuals, businesses, and the economy. Whoever gets caught holding this bill is either going to be in trouble, or will be out of pocket for the cash. Using this money hurts people so you should deal with it soon.”
Finally it says you should “Inform your local police of a possible attempt to pass suspected counterfeit money.” This is a big deal to the government and they want to know about this. Passing along fake money is a serious issue and they are going to use force to make sure it doesn’t happen!
Here’s my point: as big of a deal as fake art, fashion, money and toys are, material things aren’t the only thing this world tries to counterfeit. There are plenty of counterfeit things.
Christians believe that the Bible is the final authority on all matters of faith and life. We believe 2 Timothy 3:15-17 which says that the Bible is
“able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
We believe that God has, in His Word, revealed the best way to live in this world. Most people are aware that He has given us a moral law to guide our lives, like the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s so much more. He has given us biographies and illustrations about how to live in a complicated world, principles on how to deal with money and possessions, guidance on how to pray and worship, proverbs that teach us how to live wisely and make good choices, psalms that help us deal with loss, hurt and fear, prophecies to give us hope, and instructions for how to arrange the social orders of marriages, families, friendships, churches, businesses, and governments. God has been gracious to give us all we need in order to live wise, godly, holy, productive, kind, lives that protect us from harm, honour Him, and take care of our neighbours.
The problem is that because of our love of sin we are prone to disagree with God’s plan and create counterfeits that seem like a good idea but are, in fact, dangerous deceptions.
Which Path Will You Take?
Most people inherently agree that there are imperially good choices and bad, that there are right paths and wrong ones, but at the same time, we also tend to fight against it, thinking that our feelings and intuitions will guide us. This concept is all over Jesus’ teachings. Turn to Matthew 7:12.
Jesus here gives us what we call “The Golden Rule”. It says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” People often twist this to mean that we can do whatever we want as long as no one gets hurt, but that’s not what it means at all. Keep reading:
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
We see here that Jesus isn’t blowing away God’s standards in favour of the simple, “do whatever but don’t hurt anyone”, instead He’s clarifying that the path He demands people follow is actually much narrower than people think. We hear the Golden Rule and think it gives us the freedom to do anything we want, while Jesus makes it clear that living His Gospel and His Way is actually harder and a lot more demanding.
He actually piles up the illustrations to make sure that we don’t understand this. He gives three different pictures of choice. The first is the road. Will you choose the hard, narrow way that leads to life, or the wide and easy way that looks easier, but leads to destruction? One is a clever forgery, designed to look even better than the original, but is actually dangerous. Will you choose the real or the counterfeit?
Who Will You Listen To?
The next choice is found in verses 15-20, where He gives us a choice of who we can listen to:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Jesus says there will be two kinds of teachers in this world – the ones that tell the truth and ones that don’t. The problem is that they both look like sheep. Their messages sound similar enough to the kind the Shepherd gives, but inwardly they are wolves that are trying to mislead the sheep and pull them away from the protection of the shepherd so they can be eaten.
The Bible is full of warnings and teachings about how to tell the difference between true and false teaching – which I won’t get into here – but notice that Jesus analogy switches from sheep and wolves to healthy and unhealthy trees. His teaching is that even though we can’t know for certain the spiritual state of any individual, one thing to look for when trying to find the differences is by looking to see which one bears good fruit.
What does that mean? Well, it’s too huge of a theme to cover here, but in essence, it means that the life and teaching of that individual helps people live lives that show they are touched by God’s blessing.
Galatians 5:19-23 lays down a good list of the kinds of things we are to look for:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Jesus is clear, more than once, that there will be a lot of teachers that are telling counterfeit truths that seem good, seem like something the sheep should be doing, but are in fact dangerous lies.
What Foundation Will You Build On?
Turning back to Matthew 7 we see Jesus’ giving people a third illustration as to the choices we will be given, and that’s the foundation upon which we build our lives. We see it in 7:24-27,
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
In context here, Jesus is differentiating Himself from the religious establishment that has grown up around them and been corrupted by the Pharisees, Sadducees, Sanhedrin, but it’s not only those. He’s also drawing a dividing line between Himself and any other foundation. Whether it’s another religion or atheism or agnosticism, the establishments of politics and law, or something in our culture like political correctness or liberalism or conservatism or economics, or beliefs like pantheism or deism, Jesus is saying that there are really only two foundations: the one that stands and the one that falls.
Forever people have been coming up with all kinds of other foundations to build their lives on that are merely dangerous counterfeits of what God has said and Jesus offers. They look and sound good, but they’re no better than a fake 20 dollar bill. Looks good, might get you by for a while, but will fail you in the end.
All of those give a taste of what Jesus offers, and can sound sort of like what Jesus says if you don’t read too closely, but are dangerous foundations created by false teachers to ensnare, control, and distract people from salvation through Jesus Christ. Buddhism, Confucianism, Neopaganism, Islam, Mormonism, and Scientology all have little slices of truth in them but are merely counterfeits.
Jesus is Exclusive
That’s the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ. He is the only gate, the only path, the only good shepherd, the only good gardener, the only solid rock, the only Saviour, the only one who has seen God, the only one who has been to heaven and come to tell people, the only one who conquered death, and the only way to God. He doesn’t give other options.
This is why Christians teachers have fought and died to keep the Bible available to all believers everywhere. Jesus said unequivocally, “If you abide [remain] in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The Apostle John said, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God.” (2 John 1:9)
This isn’t religion talking. This is a Jesus talking. Christians’ didn’t say this about Jesus, Jesus said it about Himself. We merely believe what He said! Jesus appointed prophets and apostles who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write books of the Bible for us to read so we could know this.
It all comes from God, His Son Jesus, and His Book. We don’t get to make things up. We don’t get to draw other paths, choose other teachers, or make other foundations.
Pressure To Conform
Let me give you a quick example of how this is messed up today. There’s a group of Baptist churches in Texas who have come face to face with the LGBTQ community and have been forced to re-evaluate what they believe about the issue. They started to make motions towards officially accepting gay marriage, and in response, the other churches in the denomination stopped sending them money. It was the right thing to do, but the denominational leadership didn’t think so.
Let me read you a couple of quotes from their press release: “What happens when these churches begin to push for a return to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture?… Once we begin to listen to the voices who wield their power and financial strength in this way, we have begun a slippery slope to fundamentalism and irrelevancy.”[ii]
What does that mean? They were scared these other Baptist churches, who had withheld their money, were going to try to force them to return to believing that the Bible is the final authority for their life, faith, and denomination. How weird is that? A group of Baptist Churches in the Southern United States who is scared of a group that might force them to believe the Bible again. And why? Because then they would slip into “fundamentalism and irrelevancy” – translated: Then the culture won’t like us anymore.
One more quote. When talking about why they thought that it was ok to openly accept the teachings of the LGBTQ community, they said this: “The convention’s express theology of deciding who belongs in God’s kingdom is regressive and does not represent the forward-thinking theology of our Christ where walls are torn down to make room for all people marginalized and Pharisee alike.”
If you know your Bible’s even a little bit, and have been listening at all this morning, it should cause you to pause for a moment that a group of Baptist leaders said this. They were disappointed that a group of churches would not only follow and believe the Bible, but that they would ever draw a line about who is saved and who isn’t. “That kind of thinking”, they say, “is backward, old-school, undeveloped, and regressive. After all, Jesus was a forward thinking theologian who torn down walls, opened up the paths to be wide and easy, and allows people to build on whatever foundation they like! He gathered fruit from all kinds of trees, even took grapes from thorn bushes and figs from thistles. He made room for all people to join his kingdom– even the Pharisees.”
I’m really not sure what Bible they’re reading, but it’s not the same as mine. Jesus had more condemnation for the Pharisees than anyone else! And the Pharisees that did follow Jesus, like Saul, Joseph of Arimathea, and maybe Nicodemus, ended up radically altering their beliefs or completely leaving their positions as Pharisees in order to come in line with Jesus’ exclusive claims.
How does this tie into our study of 1 Corinthians 5? Because there may be no one place that modern society sees this playing out than the area of human sexuality. As you saw in the example of those Baptist churches in Texas, there is a huge temptation today to follow the ways of the world when it comes to human sexuality.
- A lot of Churches are falling in line with the understanding of sex and gender.
- The government has passed new laws and even changed the charter of rights and freedoms to accept the new way.
- Businesses that used to believe holding to conservative values would sell more products are embracing alternative sexual lifestyles and dumping any spokespeople that don’t agree.
- Movies and television have made sexual sins like pornography, adultery, and lust, normal and healthy, even going so far as to encourage people to physically harm and dominate each other.
- Educators are now including the new sexuality in their curriculums.
- Psychiatrists and psychologists have changed their definitions of mental illness to come more in line with popular culture’s views.
- Major sports organizations have said they won’t play in certain cities, or allow their teams to compete if they don’t accept LGBTQ values.
- Even pollsters, those who ask questions to thousands of people trying to understand what the nation thinks about certain topics, are having a hard time because people feel so pressured to give the “popular answer” instead of actually stating their own beliefs, that it messes up their data.
Why Are Christians Different?
There’s immense pressure to fall in line with the “new normal”, so why don’t Christians do it? Why do we insist on teachings that are so “backwards, old-school, undeveloped, and regressive”? Our reason is simply this: God has given a singular way for humanity to experience His full blessing when it comes to human sexuality, and everything else is a counterfeit. God has given humanity a singular path to follow, one garden to eat from, one foundation to build our sexuality on, and he’s very clear about it.
There are a lot of different, specific sins that the Bible condemns as outside God’s one way: Adultery, Lust, Crude Talk, Prostitution, Sensual Enticement, Bestiality, Homosexuality, but those words don’t come close to covering all the different ways that humans have conceived to sexually sin and so the word the New Testament most often uses to describe sexual sin is the Greek word PORNEIA, where we get our word “Porn”.
PORNEIA is a sort of junk drawer word that is used to describe anything that falls outside of God’s plan for human sexuality. Our hearts are so hard in this, our flesh so messed up, and there are so many ways that we have conceived to break God’s law, that there is no way for God to give us a full list of ways to go wrong, so He goes the other way – He shows us the right way and then says, “Anything outside of that is sin.”
I want to get into God’s plan for human sexuality next week, but for this week I wanted you to understand one, key point. God sets the standards, and we are to live in them. God has given us sex and gender as a gift, but as with all His gifts, we have corrupted it with sin. God gave us the right way enjoy sex, and we figured out a thousand ways to get it wrong.
What I want you to hear today is this message: Jesus didn’t come to make us free to do whatever we want as long as nobody gets hurt, but instead makes it absolutely clear that following Him and His Word requires an exclusive commitment.
That plays out in a lot of different ways in our lives, but our topic for the next while is human sexuality. God has prescribed one way to enjoy the blessing of sex and gender, and everything else is counterfeit, everything else is PORNEIA. Just because it feels good, feels right, is how we grew up, is agreeable to society, promoted by governments, encouraged by movies, media and experts – doesn’t mean it’s right, holy or good.
I’ll get into more specifics next week, but take time to meditate on this. Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour and His Word as authoritative in your life? Are you willing to walk the narrow path, only eat the good fruit, and build on the singular foundation of the words of Jesus Christ, regardless of how you feel or what everyone is saying about human sexuality?
Handout / Small Group Questions:
Before we get into our discussion of 1 Corinthians 5 next week, it’s very important that we look back to the context.
Remember the Context
The Apostles Paul is writing to a church he had planted in the Greek city of Corinth about three years prior to writing this letter.
Corinth was one of the bigger, more important cities of its day and was full to the brim with trade, politics, money, and religion. When you think of Corinth, think of it as an amalgamation of a twenty-first century inner city like downtown Ottawa and all the worst parts of the internet come to life. It was overcrowded, materialistic, urban, and bursting with world class intellects, upper-class professionals, and poor, uneducated street people.
One big difference between inner city Ottawa and Corinth was that Corinth was incredibly religious. They had as many places of worship as Ottawa has coffee shops. Because it was such a strong commercial and political centre, they attracted people from everywhere, many who were only there for a few nights to do business and have fun. So they had temples to the gods of Egypt, Rome, Greece, and even a Jewish Synagogue.
Modern Canadian cities have a lot in common with ancient city of Corinth. They were modern, liberal, commercial, self-indulgent, and morally decadent – and they had one overriding obsession: sex. It was such a part of the culture that the term “Corinthian Girl” became shorthand for prostitute. If you met someone who was a sexually out of control, you would say they were “living like a Corinthian”. No other city came even close to having this kind of reputation. To walk down the streets of Corinth or worship in their temples was to experience the most explicitly pornographic parts of the internet come to life.
Paul planted a church there and pastored them for about a year and a half before leaving to plant churches in different cities. While he was gone, the corruption of the city started to creep in, and a whole lot of bad things started to happen in this church. Some of the Christians were worried, so they sent a delegation of people to find Paul (who was then in Ephesus) to tell him what was going on and get some help. Around the same time this official delegation found Paul, it seems that an unofficial group was sent on behalf of a person named “Chloe” (1 Cor 1:11) who had concerns of her own. On top of that, it seems that Paul was already getting news from other people who had been through Corinth, visited the church, and were telling him all manner of unsettling things.
Paul presumably prayed about the situation and realized he couldn’t go to Corinth right away so God inspired him to write a letter to them, but he doesn’t start with laying down accusations and correcting their behaviour. Instead, he starts by preaching the gospel to them again.
For us it’s kind of a weird reaction. Imagine you left on a missions trip somewhere and left the kids at home, only to start getting reports that your kids had invited the Hell’s Angels for dinner where they ate the family cat, your daughter had married your uncle, were filming adult movies in your bedroom, had joined a cult, and burnt down half the house. How do you think you would have started a letter to them? Would it start with , “To my kids who have been cleaned up by Jesus, saints of God, I give thanks to my God always for you!”
That’s how Paul started! Why? Because he knew that God’s plan for that church wasn’t merely to changing their behaviour, but to rescue their souls. The issue wasn’t just what they were doing wrong, but that the sin they had allowed to take over their hearts and their church was destroying them, which meant they had forgotten about Jesus.
Remember the Gospel
So the letter begins by reminding them that even though they are messing up, they are still saved, because Jesus loves them and they believe in Jesus. Their behaviour, though dangerous, deplorable and disappointing, hasn’t disqualified them from heaven. It is not they who have to hold on to Jesus, but Jesus who is holding on to them, even as they try to slither away.
He’s disappointed that there are such terrible divisions among them, but not only because it hurts them and reflects badly upon God, but because it demonstrates such a lack of understanding and appreciation for the grace and love that Jesus has shown them.
He says in 1:26-31:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
He doesn’t jump into correcting all of their theological errors and ways they have messed up their worship service, but instead begins by reminding of the true, pure, and powerful message of the gospel that they had experienced and believed.
He says in 2:2-5:
“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
The main thrust of the first chapters is to bring them back to the love, grace, and power they had experienced when they first believed. He’s not calling them back to a proper doctrine or religious practice, but back to the One, true Saviour, Jesus Christ.
He reminds them that even though they were a totally messed up, sinful, wretched group of people who not only didn’t know Jesus, but couldn’t care less about Him, Paul was sent to them anyway so they might hear the message of salvation. But more than this… that God had worked a miracle in their hearts so they could actually hear the message in the first place.
In 2:14 he says:“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” He’s reminding them from where they
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
He’s reminding them from where they came, and forcing them to remember that it wasn’t they who had chosen to worship God, but Jesus who had chosen them to be saved.
Over and over he reminds them what they believed at first. He doesn’t start with accusation, but with the gospel.
If I could summarize the first part of the letter, I’d say it this way: “My dear children, I love you. I thank God for you. Why? Because I’ve seen God in you. You are a miracle. You, in the most messed up, pagan,
“My dear children, I love you. I thank God for you. Why? Because I’ve seen God in you. You are a miracle. You, in the most messed up, pagan, sinful city I’ve ever seen, are part of my spiritual family because of Jesus. He loved you when you were lost. He sent me to tell about forgiveness, and changed your hearts so you could hear Him. And He still loves you. Why have you forgotten this? Why did you change the message you received? Why have you mixed lies with the truth? Why are you seeking sinful pleasure instead of the joy of the Lord? Why are you fighting about who is greater, when you should know that we are all just wretches saved by Jesus? I love you guys, and Jesus loves you too. I had to leave you for a little while, but Jesus is still with you. I’m very disappointed God’s love has left you so quickly. But I’m going to come back to you and help you as soon as I can.” This is a love letter!
This is a love letter!
What the Gospel Isn’t
This is the most important thing we need to remember before we get into the next sections of the letter. From this point on Paul is going to be very specific about the kinds of sins that have messed up these people, but we cannot forget that it is all built upon the foundation of the Gospel.
This is something too many of us get terribly wrong. We jump straight to accusing sinners and trying to fix people’s behaviour without starting with the gospel. We see people doing things that go against the Bible and are disappointed, angry, frightened, or disgusted, and we immediately want them to stop their behaviour – as though that’s somehow going to fix their deepest issues, bring light to their heart and restore them to God.
We tell our children that swearing is bad, cheating is bad, gambling is bad, unkind words are bad, stealing is bad, premarital sex is bad – and we try to get them to stop.
We watch people in our nation doing bad things – murder, rape, fraud, theft, kidnapping, and all kinds of messed up sexual sin – and we want the police and government to get them to stop.
We watch the news about terrible things happening in the world – starvation, child labour, human trafficking, oppression of women, political corruption, evil dictators, nuclear armament, economic disaster – and we want the other nations to rise up and make it stop.
We look inside ourselves and see all kinds of things we want to change – bad thoughts, bad habits, anger issues, pride, anxiety, sadness – and we want someone to do something that will make it stop.
But is stopping bad things the whole of the gospel? When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” did He simply mean that he’d make everyone stop doing bad things? No. Is the mission of the church to declare all the bad things that people do and tell them to stop doing them? Is the gift of the Holy Spirt inside of us simply there to be a warning beacon that tells us when we’re doing wrong? Is that the whole of the Gospel? Is that what a relationship with God is for?
No. Then why do we so often imply that it is?
Our usual Christian message is that you shouldn’t do bad things because God doesn’t like it when we do bad things. Only bad people do bad things and God doesn’t like bad people. Sinners are God’s enemies and you don’t want to be an enemy of God, do you? Therefore you should ask forgiveness of all the bad things you’ve done, stop doing bad things, and ask for God to help you never do anything bad ever again. So come to our church where we all work hard not to do or think bad things, make each other feel bad when we do or think bad things, and share the good news that Jesus helps us not do bad things.
If that’s the message we tell others, then it’s no wonder no one wants it. If that’s the message you believe, then it’s no wonder you have a hard time worshipping Jesus. If that’s the message you grew up with – to worry at all times about what you say, do, or think, because God doesn’t like it – then it’s no wonder you have a hard time praying to Him as your Loving Father? If that’s how you read the Bible – as a list of things you’re not allowed to do – then it’s no wonder that you avoid reading it. If all you see of your spiritual life is that there’s always another sin, another temptation, another habit, another dark spot on your heart – then you will always feel guilty and bad, never forgiven, saved, and free.
The Gospel is Joy
That’s not the gospel. That’s a sliver of the gospel that is presented by people who misunderstand it, and by the devil who wants you to resent God, hate the church, and feel terrible all the time.
The gospel is joy! Turn to John 1. When the Gospel of John introduces Jesus it says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
Another translation says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (NLT) That’s the gospel. Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12) No matter how dark things are, no matter how much sin there is, how bad we think it is, the darkness can never overcome Jesus. Keep reading in John 1:9:
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.… 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
The Law of Moses given to the Jews only had the power to condemn humanity because no one could follow the law perfectly. It showed us how far we are from God’s will, how badly sin had corrupted us. No one who heard even the 10 Commandments could walk away without knowing they stood condemned. The Law gave one solution to the problem of sin: death (Rom 6:23) Either the sinner dies and faces God’s wrath themselves, or God accepts the death of another as a substitute. Hebrews says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb 9:22) For a long time that substitute was an animal – a bull or goat – but that was never enough to satisfy God’s wrath, so more and more had to die. An animal’s blood couldn’t fully atone for the sins of a nation of humans, let alone the world!
But everyone who read the Old Testament Law and Prophets knew something greater was coming.
- When Adam and Eve sinned, God promised that one would come through Eve who would crush the serpent once and for all. (Gen 3:15).
- When God called old Abram and Sarai out of their pagan land to follow Him, He promised that from them would come one who would bless all the nations.
- When God delivered Israel from their slavery to Egypt, He had them spill the blood of a lamb so the death would pass over them – Jesus would be the final Passover lamb.
- Isaiah spoke of One who would bear the grief of sinners, carry their sorrows, be stricken and smitten by God, pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities, who would bring healing to others by the wounds afflicted to Him. One upon whom the Lord would lay upon the iniquity of all (Isa 53:1-6).
The light of man would come and face utter darkness, sin and death, take the full weight of God’s wrath, conquer sin once and for all, and offer Himself in exchange for others.
The Woman Caught in Adultery
Jesus didn’t shy away from us because we were sinners. He didn’t come and simply tell us to stop sinning, and that’s not the message we are to give to others. Certainly, He called for repentance, but that wasn’t his core mission. Let’s read John 8:1-11:
“Early in the morning he [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”
Herein we see how Jesus sees people who are in sexual sin. This isn’t about one woman who lived a long time ago. This is how Jesus sees adulterers, pornography makers and users, prostitutes, homosexuals, people who have sex outside of marriage, those with perverted hearts and minds, anyone who doesn’t line up with God’s perfect standards of human sexuality – which is everyone. This is how Jesus treats them. Remember, she didn’t come to him, but was dragged before Jesus. We see no repentance from her; only guilt, shame and fear.
Who could have thrown the first stone? Jesus. But He didn’t.
This isn’t the only place Jesus does something like this. He looks at the woman at the well, who has had a tonne of messed up relationships and shows her love and turns her into a missionary. He looks at Zacchaeus, a sinner and maybe the most hated man in town, and invites himself over for a party to meet his messed up friends.
In Luke 15:1-2 we can see the magnetic pull the love of Jesus had on sinners:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
Hearing this Jesus then tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, sharing how much God loves pursuing sinners and how much He rejoices when they come back to Him!
Next week we are going to talk about sexual sin, which is a very big deal in scripture. It tears apart souls, marriages, families, cities and nations. Sexual sin has corrupted every part of our society. It is not too much of an overstatement to say that we live in modern day Corinth. And none of us are right with God in this. Every person who has hit puberty, and some who haven’t yet, are guilty of committing sexual sin.
But when you hear this, or when you are faced with it in your life or in the lives of others, I beg you to see it in the light of the Gospel. And when you feel the conviction of sin, or see sinners around out, know that Jesus doesn’t hate you or them. He’s not disappointed in you or angry with you. He isn’t surprised by what you’ve done, nor is he repulsed. That’s not the message of His gospel.
John 3:16-17 says,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
He looks at us who have committed sexual sins, or sins of any kind, and He does what He did for the woman caught in adultery. She stood there, caught in the act, blushing, terrified, perhaps barely holding her clothes around her, feeling more guilty and scared than she ever had in her whole life. There was no doubt she had sinned, no question of her guilt, there was no question of what the law said must happen – she must die – and no one in the entire world could make her innocent – except One.
The accusers surrounded Jesus, demanded her blood, her death, her public shame to be seen by all, and he silenced them by pointing out their sin, their hypocrisy, their own guilt and shame, until the only one that was left to accuse her was Jesus, the only one who had never sinned.
And He stood up and looked at her. She was alone before the God of the universe, the judge of all mankind who knew that she wasn’t just an adulterer, but knew every other sin she had ever committed too. He looked into her eyes, but saw not only the sin, he saw the woman, the girl, the baby God had formed in her mother’s womb. His heart, full of compassion and love for her, released her from her guilt, and told her to sin no more knowing fully well she would.
And God the Father took that sin, written on His divine ledger, the list of things that would be held against her after death, and he erased it – and then wrote it on the list of sins that would be held against Jesus, His Only Son. God the Father would punish Jesus the Son for her sin of adultery. He would take the accusations, shame, beatings, death, and divine wrath so she wouldn’t have to.
That’s why He could send her away without casting the stone. It would disobey God’s Law not to hold her to account. But, there was one way she wouldn’t have to die – if someone took that punishment for her. Payment must be made. Blood must be spilt. And He would spill His. That’s why He came. No to condemn sinners, but to save them.
That’s the gospel. That’s why we sing. That’s the joy. That’s our hope. That’s where we find peace. That’s the source of our love and forgiveness. That’s what we preach and teach and share, and what Paul was so concerned that the Corinthians would remember, because they had lost their joy, hope and love, because they had lost the gospel and got wrapped up in the world.
So I implore you, as we enter this next section of 1 Corinthians, do not forget that it is all said in the light of the loving forgiveness and amazing grace that comes from Jesus Christ to all sinners who would believe.
If you remember last week, we learned that regardless of what the multitudes of unbelievers in this world think, there really is objective truth and objective morality, and those things were written long, long ago by God Himself. And therefore, despite all of the dramatic changes of opinion which seek to envelop us, and all the forces pulling us towards compromise, there are many things that Christians will not change.
The world around us is redefining itself at a remarkable rate.
- A hundred years ago few homes had a telephone, now almost everyone has access to the wonders of the internet in their pockets.
- In 1915 only a handful of people graduated from high school, and only 1 in 10 doctors had a college education – today you almost need a bachelor’s degree to be hired to flip burgers.
- In 1915 you could get Marijuana and Heroin over the counter from your pharmacist.
In just one generation, we have seen radical changes in the way the world looks and sounds.
- Tattoos used to be reserved for sailors, and piercings for women’s earlobes.
- Children have all but stopped going to the park and riding their bikes all over the neighbourhood – although Pokémon Go seems to have changed that now!
- Television wouldn’t even show a husband and wife in the same bed.
- We didn’t hear the first uncensored swear word until 1999.
- It took until 1971 before the sound of a toilet flush was heard on TV! Now we have Netflix and Game of Thrones.
And that’s just a little scratch off the surface. In an even shorter time, we’ve seen seismic changes in how the world views human sexuality, marriage and family, contraception and abortion, pornography and prostitution, the role of government, multiculturalism, religion, and more. And we’re not merely talking about fads and fashions, but complete reversals on these issues. What was once considered immoral, illegal, disgusting and even dangerous, is now part of our everyday mainstream media and culture.
It was incredible to me (though perhaps it shouldn’t have been) to see a woman at the US Democratic National Convention stand in front of a group of thousands of people and be applauded for having her first child aborted, and encouraging others to do the same. Or to watch prostitutes stand on the steps of the Canadian Parliament and shout how proud they are of their “valuable work”. That’s an incredible change from only a few years ago.
Christians, every day, everywhere, even in our little context here in Beckwith and Carleton Place, are faced with a dramatically and rapidly changing world. We can’t avoid dealing with it.
Last week we talked about the danger and foolishness of dealing with it by setting your moral compass by the “rulers” or authorities of this ages who’s “wisdom” is “doomed to pass away”, but we are to pursue spiritually mature thinking by staying connected to God and His Word.
In the passage of scripture we were looking at, we are reminded that today’s worldly wisdom will not only “pass away”, but those coming up with these new ideas are usually wrong. The quintessential example of how wrong they got it was that when they saw Jesus Christ, instead of seeing the sinless Son of God, they murdered him.
The passage continues and reminds us that if we want to understand what God is doing, then we have to listen to Him, because his plans are often “secret and hidden”, beyond our ability to discern through our own human abilities. No matter how much we study, we will never be able to figure out what God is doing because, as Isaiah 55:9 says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than [our] ways and [God’s] thoughts than [our] thoughts.”
God’s Plan is a Revealed Plan
But that doesn’t meant that God’s plan is impossible to learn, or His voice impossible to hear. We just can’t get there ourselves. We need help. Please open up to 1 Corinthians 2:9-12.
“But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”
There’s an important word there that we need to make sure that we see; it’s the word “revealed”. God’s will is a revealed will. God’s plan is a revealed plan. What God has “prepared for those who love him” is “secret and hidden” for most people, but it can be found by those who have received the Spirit of God.
Remember the context. The Corinthian church has been acting like a bunch of immature, unspiritual, babies, and Paul says that as much as he’d like to teach them about “secret and hidden” things of God, he can’t because they’re too immature to listen.
The reason we have Children’s Church, or Sunday School, here is so that those who are unable to understand me – who don’t have the attention span, vocabulary, or maturity to be able to sit through a sermon – can be taught about Jesus at their own level. It’s important that we do that or the children will be both confused and frustrated, and we don’t want that. We speak to them at their level.
The Apostle Paul had spent a year and half teaching the Corinthians, and after he had left, they didn’t grow more mature in their faith, but instead reverted back to acting like spiritual babies. They could barely handle Children’s Church, and would never be able to understand a real, deep, mature Christian lesson.
But, Paul says, these things are absolutely available! Anyone can learn them – but they need to be pursuing spiritual maturity in order to do it. I want to spend next week giving more details about the Holy Spirit, but today we’ll suffice with this: the only way to “comprehend the thoughts of God” is to receive, accept and walk with “the Spirit of God”.
These truths must be “revealed”. We can’t figure them out on our own, no matter how hard we try. He does this through us reading scripture and when we are in prayer – but both require submission to the Holy Spirit for it to work.
Here’s a great example:
In Matthew 16:13-17 it says,
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’”
A bunch of people had put their heads together and came up with some great theories about who Jesus was, and it was based on a lot of study. Herod and his experts thought that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life and that rumour spread far and wide. Others thought that Jesus was like one of the prophets of old brought back to life. Elijah had great power, and so did Jesus. Jeremiah had great wisdom, and so did Jesus, so perhaps it was him. But, as good as these guesses were, they were all wrong.
When Jesus turned to ask His group of disciples who they thought He was, it was the bold Simon Peter who spoke up.
“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Do you see that? Jesus says, “Peter, you got the right answer, but it wasn’t you who came up with it. It was God who gave that to you. You wouldn’t have come up with that yourself!”
And we know that because within about 6 verses, Peter takes Jesus aside to tell him that He’s never going to be killed or raised from the dead, and Jesus says,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)
Oh, Peter! When you were listening to God you were right on, but when you started to set your mind on the things of man – the worries you had for your friend, the plans you think you have in your mind, the ways you think Jesus should work, the belief that all suffering is bad – you started working for Satan and hindering the work of God!
Over and over in his letters, the Apostle Paul reminds his readers that everything from his conversion to Christianity to the sermons he preached were not His idea, but came because Jesus acted first. He knew the Old Testament better than anyone and hated Jesus. And yet Jesus save Him and taught him the truth. Jesus shone light in the dark places so Paul could see things that his great, human wisdom and learning, could never reveal. (Gal 1:12, 16; Eph 3:3, 5)
This is something we absolutely need to understand, and is something that I’ve been talking around for a number of weeks. Our human senses, knowledge, and understanding are not enough to figure out what God is doing in our lives, our family, or this world. His truths are revealed to spiritual people in a spiritual way. It is through the pursuit of God’s Spirit, by walking with God, that we are able to discern the secrets and mysteries of His plan.
But most of us still really, really want to believe our human wisdom is enough, which is why we spend more time thinking, talking and reading than praying and meditating. We believe that our abilities are enough to comprehend the mind of God. We think that with enough thought or study or effort, we’ll be able to figure it all out and/or save ourselves without having to trouble God.
When we are presented with a problem, we tend to trust our senses, our feelings, our knowledge, and our understanding. We seek out human experts, human wisdom and human answers for questions that can only be spiritually discerned.
- We are presented with suffering, fear, sadness, and pain, and we want to know why it’s happening and what to do about it. Immediately our minds fly into “human wisdom” mode and we start to try to figure it out. How can we fix this? How can we defeat this? Where does this come from? What do the experts say? How do I feel about it? If I think enough about it, and work hard enough, then I’m sure I’ll figure it all out and be able to make a plan that fixes everything for myself and everyone else.
- Or, maybe we’re presented with fighting, disagreement, and hard-hearts. We want people to either agree with us or all get along, and what do we do? We have imaginary arguments and see if we can outwit them before they even speak. We try to find ways to make everyone happy. We build walls and fences to protect ourselves.
We are surrounded by so-called experts who are full to the brim with answers and worldly wisdom to solve our problems – but most are only digging deeper graves for themselves and their followers.
Notice that the Bible here talks about two different spirits: the “spirit of the world” and “the Spirit who is from God”. Notice also that one is lower-case and the other is capitalized.
There are two ways of confronting these difficult issues, two different spirits we can choose between to trust: one is the “spirit of the world” the other is “the Spirt who comes from God.” You can see these as two different sources of power, or two different God’s we can worship, almost; two different places to find hope and peace.
The “spirit of the world” draws its strength from multiple sources. It draws strength from the wisdom of the world and this age, supposed rulers and experts of today and yesterday. These are the humanists and philosophers who have tried to riddle out human existence without the need for God. And coupled with that it also draws strength from the demonic realm. Remember, it was Satan who first offered Adam and Eve the opportunity to be like God, knowing good and evil. It was a temptation towards human knowledge, human power, worldly wisdom, that didn’t require God. It’s the same temptation we have today when we try to solve our issues or understand this world without God’s help.
The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, comes from God. He is God. He knows the mind of God the Father, and is fully God Himself.
This is not a new message, but one that has been preached for millennia. When you are faced with something in this world, you have two choices: human wisdom coupled with demonic influence, or dependence on the Holy Spirit of God. The question is, which will you choose?
Our Hiding Place
I’ll talk more specifically about what the Holy Spirit offers next week, but for now I want you to consider how you are reacting to what’s going on around you.
The world is rapidly changing – how are you seeking to discern truth from lies, good from evil, positive changes from negative ones? Are you trying to use human wisdom, or are you on your knees before God, reading His word, and asking the Holy Spirit to reveal his truth to you and give you discernment to understand it?
Many of you are in difficult places, struggling with areas of suffering. How are you reacting to it? Are you trying to figure it out yourself? Depending on worldly experts and worldly wisdom? Are you leaning on your friends, spouse, family, and everyone else, in hopes they will give you strength – but not leaning on God? Do your struggles drive you to Jesus and His promise to give you the Holy Spirit to help you “understand the things freely given us by God”, or do your struggles drive you away from Him.
It is the immature believer that runs from God during times of confusion, fear, and struggle. It is the mature believer that runs towards Him for help. Over and over in scripture God is called a “strong tower”, a “refuge”, a “fortress”, a “rock”, a “shield”, a “stronghold” (Prov 18:10, Ps 18:2, 61:3, 2 Samuel 22:3) Over and over, God is called our “hiding place” (Psalm 17:8, 27:5, 32:7, 119:114). The place where we run to and hide when things get tough. Jesus is called the “Saviour” because He saves us!
The world says that your pains are meant to make you stronger so you can handle more things. No! Our changing world, personal struggles, and pains are meant to drive us to Him so He can be our strength and our defender. God gives them us to show us our weakness so we can learn that we need God to handle everything!
What is stopping you from running to Him?
What is keeping you from crying out to your deliverer?
What keeps you from putting aside the wisdom of the world and leaning heavily on the Spirit of God?
What keeps you from confessing your problems to your Christian brothers and sisters and asking them to call out to God with you?
Is it your pride? You want to come up with your own answers? You want to be the one who saves yourself? You want to impress everyone, including God, with how strong and independent you are? Don’t be foolish. That’s the human path of destruction.
Is it your false humility? You think you are too far gone for God’s notice? You think that your prayers are too simple? You think that you need to do something good before God will listen? Then you don’t understand the Good news of the Gospel! To God, you were dead and dumb and His enemy – and He came to save you anyway. He knows the thoughts of your heart, and knows exactly how you feel – because Jesus has felt the same way. And there is nothing you need to do to be worthy of God’s attention – because He’s a good Father who wants nothing more than to have you come to Him.
It actually grieves His heart when you think that you are either too good or too bad for Him to help. It grieves His heart when you refuse to come.
The Prodigal Son
Remember the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The son looked at the father and said, “I wish you were dead. Give me my inheritance and I’ll pretend you are. I’m going to go live like the world. I’m going to listen to the world. I’m going to act like I’m not even one of your children. I’m going to take all the blessings you give me, and spend them only on my own selfish desires. Get out of my life, Father… I know better than you!”
And it says that after hitting rock bottom, the son got so sick of what the world was offering that he wanted to go home. But he thought he was unworthy. He wanted to come back and as a lowly servant. Like many people here, he figured his father would be angry because of how they have lived, or because of the neglect of his soul, or because he had made himself unclean, so he thought, maybe he could just scrub pots in the kitchen.
The moment his life changed was the moment he decided, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to Him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.’”. So he went home, with a three sentence speech planned, hoping to grovel for some grace.
But how was he greeted? His Father was looking for Him. As soon as the son was in sight, his Father ran out to him, and before the son could even get his little speech out, the Father was yelling at the servants to dress him, clean him, restore him, equip him, celebrate him! He was thrilled beyond belief to have his child with him again!
That’s the kind of God we have! He is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go searching for the lost one and rejoices when they are found. He is the woman who tears apart the house looking for the one coin she has lost, even though she still has 9. He is the God who is jealous for His people and loves it when they come to Him. And promises, that when we do, He will help us understand what is going on, why it’s happening, and where we can find comfort.
Before the word is on our tongue, He is there, restoring, cleaning, helping, comforting, and embracing us. He’s not angry – He’s thrilled you are there! The Spirit of God has been waiting for you to open up to Him.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working through the book of Habakkuk. This short book captures a conversation that the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk had with God during a time of great trouble in his nation.
Everything around him was falling apart – the people were fighting one another, violence ruled the streets, and the judges and lawmakers were corrupt and wouldn’t deal with it. And when a good person finally did stand up, the bad ones would strike him down. If you’ve ever seen the new Batman movies, or watched Gotham on Netflix, then you know what Habakkuk was going through. Think of him as one of the worship leaders in one of the churches in a Gotham City without Batman.
But, instead of donning a black cowl, Habakkuk did what believers do, and starts to pray. His first prayer is a cry for help that contained a very important question: “Why?”. “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you look idly at wrong?” (1:3) God’s answer is that He has not been idle, and has been working out a much bigger plan than Habakkuk could conceive. God’s response is to give Habakkuk a vision of what’s going on, giving him a helicopter ride high above his problems, the city’s corruption, and even Israel’s massive issues. He gives the prophet a global view of what God’s been doing and will do next.
God’s been raising up the Chaldeans, who will later become the Babylonian Empire. God’s plan to deal with what all of what Habakkuk has been complaining about, is to have a powerful enemy rise up and swallow God’s people whole, destroying Jerusalem, and dragging them off into captivity.
This wasn’t exactly what Habakkuk had in mind when he had started praying, so he asks a follow-up question in verse 13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” In other words, “God, why would you use a more evil nation to punish the lesser wrongs of your own people? That doesn’t seem fair.”
God’s answer to that question comes in an intense section we call the “Woes against the Chaldeans”. His answer, in short, is that no one will be getting away with anything. All sin will be punished, justice will be done, and everyone will get what’s coming to them.
Habakkuk’s prayer started with, “How can you look at sin and not do anything?” And God’s answer is, “I am about to do something – but you’re not going to like it. I’m about to pour my wrath out against sin. That includes all the people you were complaining about in your nation and all those who come against you.” God would use the Chaldeans as a rod of discipline against His children so they would stop doing evil and come back to Him and His Law. And then after, God would turn His righteous wrath against all the wrongs of the Chaldeans. “Don’t worry, Habakkuk, the violence and sin will be dealt with, justice will be done, and no one will be getting away with anything.”
Covering these woes has been an intense experience for me – and I wonder if it has been for you too. Going through this section has been both convicting and difficult. It’s hard to talk about these topics sometimes, but it’s important that we don’t gloss over them in favour of seeking more pleasant topics. I think it is critically important that we come face to face with the sins that surround us and that are inside us or we will never feel the need to come to the Saviour. People who aren’t sick, or don’t know they’re sick, don’t seek out a doctor.
As we’ve been talking about these woes, we’ve covered some big topics. We talked about God’s hatred of sin and the extreme lengths He will go to do deal with it. We’ve talked about how sin starts with pride, which leads to the dangers of addiction, which then, as the sin leads to deeper sins, turns us into greedy and out of control consumers who only think of ourselves.
That’s what these woes are all about – confronting out of control sin with hard truths. A Woe is simply a pronouncement of judgement, a warning against a person who doesn’t realize how dangerous their situation is. They think they’re going along fine, but the trajectory of their sin is leading them to destruction. The prophet pronounces a woe against these people because their sins have been seen by God, and God is going bring judgement against them – but not fire and brimstone from the sky. No, most of God’s plan is to let the natural consequences of their actions bring the judgement against them. Certainly, God would be the guiding hand, but none of that which comes upon them would be spectacular.
The first woe, found in 2:6 was against their greed. “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!” Their greed had gotten out of control, which caused them to take things that wasn’t theirs. They took what other people had so they could have more. This gave us a chance to talk about our own out of control spending and debts, and how dangerous it is to live a life as a “slave to the lender” (Prov 22:7), instead of living with Jesus as our Lord.
The second woe, which we covered last week, was against their self-security. “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm!” (2:9) God was telling them how foolish it was to believe that destroying their relationships with the people around them in favour of gathering more wealth would make them safe. This gave us a chance to ask ourselves some important questions about our own sources of anxiety and the foolish and selfish ways we try to mitigate or moderate them, instead of trusting God to meet our needs.
Woe 3 & 4: Self-Centredness
Today we’re going to talk about the third and fourth woe, found in 2:12-17. Let’s read it together:
“Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.”
Both of these woes have something in common, which is why I’m covering them both at the same time. They are both woes against self-centredness.
If you remember the previous sermons, we talked about the downward spiral from pride to sin to addiction to greed. The natural outworking of a life of addiction and greed is self-centredness. We start to believe that the world revolves around us and exists to meet our needs and bring us pleasure. Our addictions and greed make us start to see the world and people around us as objects rather than gifts.
This certainly happened to the Chaldeans (or Babylonians), and we’ve talked about this before. They consumed all they could within their own borders, and then decided to move further out. They weren’t content with what they had, but wanted more and more – at any cost. They didn’t see the world as a gift meant to share, but an object meant to be owned. They didn’t see the people around them as fellow humans, but as enemies who stood between them and that which they desired. Their pride in believing they were their own gods fueled their addictions, which bled beyond their borders, eventually driving them to take over almost the whole world and become one of the largest empires in history.
The third woe says, “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!” (2:12) The fourth says, “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” (2:15) Notice the similarity there – the exploitation and consumption of their neighbours.
Their need to fuel their addictions and greed has them reaching beyond their borders to get more. But instead of asking for more, or partnering with others to build mutually beneficial relationships, they simply take. They use brute force to get what they want, taking everything in their path, destroying anyone who gets between them and the object of their desire. All that they have, their whole city, is built on “iniquity”, which is simply the word for “sin” or “wrong”. All they had was dripping with the blood of those they had taken it from.
And the next woe is the natural, next step. The Babylonians were famous for their wild drinking and sex parties. The picture here is that of the enemy nation coming into town, taking over the houses, lands and cities, and then corrupting those around them. They did this in two ways: First, by inviting those who they didn’t kill to join them in their sin and second, by forcing the ones who wouldn’t into addiction and sexual slavery.
This was especially condemning because Israel had a lot of laws about drunkenness, sexuality, and indecency. Their scriptures are full of bad examples of people who got drunk and naked and brought themselves and many others a lot of trouble. Noah, Lot, and Samson got drunk, naked and in trouble.
Babylon was a nation of people dedicated to their own self-pleasure and anyone who wouldn’t join their party was either killed or exploited.
Our Babylonian Culture
This all sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? But does it still happen today? It’s tempting to get into a diatribe against the pride, addictions, greed and exploitation that is happening at a national level. Most of us know about alarming rise in binge drinking, drug addiction and pornography use among young people – that leads directly into fueling of what is now being called the “Rape Culture”. Countless articles have been written about how rampant violence and drug addiction is in the pornography industry and the terrible amount of human trafficking and abortions that are happening to keep the sex industry going.
It’s getting pretty Babylonian out there, folks.
We’ve been reading about the insane interest that Canada is taking in legalizing marijuana. We live next to Ottawa, which has for the past five years had “Sexapolooza”, which, though sold to the public as a “consumer trade show”, is simply a public celebration of pornography, cruelty, perversion and sexual exploitation. Abortion could be considered the highest form of violence, and Canada is guilty of murdering three hundred babies every day. We compound our appetite for lust with murder.
And, just like fighting against the Babylonians, we know what happens to anyone who doesn’t fall in line, right? You either join the party by choice or by force – or you’re in trouble. Behind the alcohol, drug and sex trade are people with lots of guns, money and influence. Beware anyone who tries to get in their way.
Our Own Self-Centredness
But I don’t only want to talk about the ills of our nation today – I want to make this much more personal. We may not be able to change the path of the nation, but we can certainly examine the sins that beset our own souls. Self-Centredness, or the belief that the world exists to serve you, is something we all suffer from.
Kay Arthur, in her study guide on Habakkuk says,
“The proud, evil lifestyle of the wicked begins with greed, which in turn leads to self-exultation, which cuts off others. Then, because self is exalted above others, what else would you expect? Violence and bloodshed. Not only do you steal what others have so that you can have more, you abuse anyone who gets in the way of self! Drunk on self and power, you then seduce your neighbours for your own sensual satisfaction. And why not? The idols you worship don’t condemn you! And God, if there is a God, doesn’t notice or get involved in the affairs of mere men!”
This isn’t talking about the excesses of the Babylonian Empire, it’s talking about you and me. We are, every day, faced with the decision to choose to love people or love things. Most of us don’t even think about it. We finish the milk, take the last cookie, and we don’t even think of anyone else. We buy our clothes, buy our groceries, order our coffee, use our cell phone, eat at a restaurant, head off to work, drive our cars, watch our tv shows, visit our websites, and head off to bed without even the passing thought that every single one of those actions has repercussions on others.
Why? Because we are self-centered. Instead of loving people and using things, we use people and love our things. Philippians 3:19 condemns people like this saying,
“Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things…”
What that means is that our desire for earthly things like wealth, possessions, comfort, and pleasure, causes us to override our love for God and others. God says that we should love others sacrificially, but our belly-god just keeps crying out for more until we feed it. Like the Woe to the Chaldeans, if we live self-centred life, driven by our appetites, then our end will be destruction.
A Christian, like Jesus, thinks of God first, and then others second. This concept is all over scripture, and it is presented as a very big deal. How we see ourselves and how we treat others, is directly connected to what is going on in our hearts and our relationship with God. Listen:
Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He answered in Matthew 22:37-40:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
In Philippians 2:3 Paul implores the church to work together saying:
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
In James 4:1-3 we read that all of this self-centredness comes from the desires of our heart:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
And in 1 John 4:19-21 we are told that our love for others is directly connected to our love for God:
“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
This is pretty serious. Our treatment of others shows our relationship with God. 1 John 2:9 says: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”
“Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”
Remember, Jesus said, “…if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:15) and “…in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2)
Jesus was very serious about how we treat each other. Our relationship with God doesn’t merely exist between us and Him. Making Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour means asking God to change us from self-centred people who worship our stomach and idolize self into people who put God first and others second. “We love because he loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Examples of How We Exploit Others
But, as I said, we all struggle with being self-centred. So much so that we don’t even know that our most regular, mundane activities have ripple effects that impact people both nearby and far off. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and so I want to give you a quick rundown of the kinds of things I mean. (This may get a little weird, but I hope it helps you see my point.)
Remember how I just said that “we finish the milk, take the last cookie, buy our clothes, groceries and coffee, user our phone, eat at a restaurant, head to work, drive our cars, watch tv, visit our websites, and head off to bed without even the passing thought that every single one of those actions has repercussions on others”? Well, they all do.
Let’s start with the milk and cookies that we finished. Where did the milk come from? Who bought it? Was there more? It may just something as simple as drinking the last of the milk, but if we live in a home with other people, then even the smallest actions have ripple effects. The people around us are a gift from God and we are to treat them as such. Not only that, they are also our primary learning ground for how we interact with the world. Our home and family is where we learn how to show love, share, and deal with conflict. It’s also where we learn what happens when we are greedy, or self-centred. Parents and families have the responsibility to help each other grow into people who know that God is the boss, Jesus is Lord, and we don’t exist merely for ourselves.
Next, in our little scenario, we put on our clothes, get in the car, buy some groceries, and grab a coffee. I want you to consider the effects that those actions have on others. Where did bananas, chocolate, tuna and shrimp you bought come from? It’s not only possible, but likely, that they were picked by child or slave laborers. Did you know most of our cell phones, the rubber in our tires, the diamond on our finger, and the clothes on our back can be tied directly to slavery and human rights abuses? Some of the people that picked the fruit on our counters, cotton in our clothes, and cocoa for our Valentine chocolates, and the beans for our morning coffee were stolen from their families, sold as slaves and are never paid. Others who made our electronics were kept in prison-like conditions and worked so hard that some companies have taken to installing nets in high places to curb the rampant suicides among their workers.
Next, we head to work. Of course, these interactions are full of ways that we can be either be self-centred either or show our care for others. What kind of worker are we? Do we show respect to the employer and our fellow employees? Do we steal from work? Do we abuse the vacation and sick-day system? What kind of e-mails do we send? Do we waste other people’s time?
Next, we go to the restaurant for lunch. Again, where did our food come from? Is it a company that respects the environment? Do they respect the local economy by buying from local farmers and producers, or are they ruining lives by putting them out of business? Did we even consider how the company treats their employees? Or are we perpetuating a system that underpays the delivery people, cooks, staff and managers? We just want a hamburger, but what is the human cost required to fill our belly? Does it even cross our minds?
After we’re done at the restaurant, in our little scenario, we finish up work, go home, watch TV and surf the web. We may believe we are merely passive in this process – after all, we don’t produce the shows or the internet content, right? We just and watch. However, I want you to remember what we learned about Babylon.
God’s woe against them was that anyone who didn’t join their party would be forced into addiction or the subject of violence. I want to read that verse again:
“Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” (Hab 2:15)
What was their end goal? Drunkenness and sexual sin.
Viewing Pornography is Exploitation
Every time we witness a sexual act on the TV or the Internet, we are perpetuating a culture of abuse. Babylon used violence and alcohol to entice and force people into performing lewd acts. Our culture and media producers do the same with drink, drugs, money and threats.
I’m not going to get into the abuses that young people, especially young women, suffer in the movie and tv industry, because that is incredibly well documented and we get to witness the destruction of their souls every day in the newspapers. Every day we sacrifice more of our mothers and daughters on the altar of entertainment.
No, what I want to talk about, briefly, is the sex industry. The picture of Babylon is a picture of prostitution, pornography and human trafficking. All around the world, men steal or lure women and children into the sex industry with both promises and threats. Some they flatter, others they intimidate, but it’s always for the same goal – to exploit them.
Addiction is extremely common among prostitutes and pornographers. It not only masks the pain, but oftentimes, the perpetrators will purposely get the girls addicted to drugs and alcohol so they can control their captives. And then either tie them up in legal contracts or literally tie them up with chains so they can’t escape. (“Porn Fuels the Rape Culture“. “Pornography and Human Trafficking” (also here). “19 Year Old Commits Suicide After Shooting First Porn Scene“. Porn Destroys People, Families and Communities. Also check out Porn Harms.)
Remember their motives: Get them drunk so they can look on their nakedness. Listen closely: every time you look at pornography – every time – they are perpetuating a system that destroys lives. One reason people keep falling into the trap of porn addiction is because they think it doesn’t affect anyone else. That is a demonic lie! It hardens our hearts, destroys our marriages, ruins our ability to love, turns women into objects, and perpetrates some of the worst crimes imaginable against people we should be protecting, not exploiting. (Read/Watch this)
Anyone who has ever used a prostitute or looked at pornography is guilty of the same sins as Babylon – self-centred exploitation of others. Every is another excuse for the pornography machine to grab another young women or child and do it again. They make billions of dollars every year – even off their free sites. Even if you’ve never paid a cent for it, your attention to that website, tv show, or magazine, drives the industry.
I could keep going on this all day, but I think you see my point. This world makes it extremely easy to be a self-centred person who exploits others for their own benefit. We do it every day. Why do the banana and coffee slave owners, abusive technology companies, evil corporations, and pornographers keep getting away with it? Because most people don’t know, and most of the ones who do, don’t care.
Let me close with this: God ends each woe with a prophecy about what will happen to these people. He pronounces His woes and then concludes with, “Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the
“Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea…. The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!” (Hab 2:14, 16)
This is a reminder that God is going to deal with these sins once and for all. He’s been showing His patience, waiting for His people to come back to Him, but that patience is limited. “The cup in the Lord’s right hand” is the cup of divine retribution. One day, He will pay back everyone for their wrong.
For some, that payment will be made by Jesus Christ. The Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God has looked into our self-centred hearts and though He has judged us as sinners, has also made a way for us to be free from the consequences of our sin. Jesus came and lived as sinless man who could die in the place of sinners. God poured out all of His wrath and hatred against sin onto Jesus.
No one will get away with anything – but for some, who believe in Jesus Christ – the payment for their sin has been made for them. He died for our sins. That’s the Good News. We are terrible sinners, but we have a wonderful Saviour. God was willing to trade the perfection of His Son for our imperfection, so we could be with Him forever.
However, others will not accept this gift, and they will pay for their own sins. God’s hatred of their exploitation of others will be upon their heads. All the shame they made others feel, they will feel. All the pain they inflicted – physical, mental, and emotional – will be brought down upon them. Every tear they have caused someone else to shed will be held against them. The hell they put their captives through will be their home for eternity.
Human Traffickers won’t get away with what they’ve done. Abortionists won’t get away with murder. Doctors that kill their patients for money instead of treating them won’t get away with it. Those that manipulate the system for their own benefit and ruin opportunities for others, won’t get away with it. All sin will be dealt with. God has seen it and deal out perfect justice.
I invite you today to realize you are a sinner and turn to God for forgiveness in Jesus name. And then, as you walk with Him, He will change you from self-centred, to Christ-centred – and you will learn how to live for God and others instead of yourself.