The World, the Flesh and the Devil

Audio Player

Our subject tonight is The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Where do you think that phrase comes from? Well, it doesn't come from the 1950's film with that title that starred Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens. They were the only survivors in New York of a world-wide nuclear accident - that is until Mel Ferrer arrives to fight Belafonte for the woman. No! The phrase comes into English usage from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer - the great Prayer Book of the Church of England that helps define its doctrine. It comes from the Litany - a long prayer that includes prayers for protection including this one:

"From fornication, and all other deadly sin; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us."

Yes, the phrase is associated with illicit sex - sex other than sex in marriage. Tonight, therefore, I want us to think about "the world, the flesh and the devil", the three enemies of the soul, as they are traditionally called, and about how they impact on sexual relationships and especially marriage. And I want us to look at Mark's Gospel, chapter 10 and the first 12 verses. And my headings are, first, CHRISTIAN SEX ETHICS; secondly, THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL; and, thirdly, THE DIVINE WAY.


There is huge confusion today over sex ethics and everything related to them. And not surprisingly people are finding it hard to get married these days. In Sydney, Australia, one woman has tried a novel strategy. Having dated a lot of men but found none of them wanting any commitment, she recently hired a huge advertizing hoarding outside a cinema. On it was pasted up: "Husband Wanted". Then her specification of the right man. She concluded with her e-mail address and the words, "Serious replies only". But I want us to focus now on God's order for marriage. You say, "How do we know what is God's order for marriage?" Well, Jesus spells it our so clearly in Mark 10. Look at verse 2:

"Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'"

The Pharisees are not really interested in solving any problem; they are just trying to cause Jesus some embarrassment. There was a debate going on in their religious world over divorce. Some said you could divorce over almost anything. That was the school of Rabbi Hillel. Others who followed Rabbi Shammai said it had to be over something like adultery. But Jesus refuses to go into the details of this dispute. Rather he puts the discussion on the level of fundamental principle. Verse 3: "What did Moses command you?" he replied. Verse 4: "They said, 'Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.'" Jesus then replied with the first of seven fundamental principles that he is teaching or underlining here and that they (and we) must come to terms with.

First, he says that men and women have "hard hearts". Look at verse 5:

"'It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,' Jesus replied."

You and I are not as God intended. We don't want to go God's way but our way. And in the West, particularly, that is the case in matters of sex. Engelbert Humperdinck was talking about his life and marriage recently. Apparently, so the report goes, I quote, "after four decades of marriage he is finally ready to apologise to his wife for his years of bed-hopping and womanizing."

Secondly, Jesus underlines that sex is good. Look at verse 6:

"But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.'"

He is wanting to focus on sex and sexual relationships as God intended them. Jesus is going back to Genesis chapter 1 and the first creation account, where as the high point of all creation, you have the creation of Man in verse 27 ...

"... God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

And you are told in verse 31 of Genesis 1 that "all that he [God] had made ... was very good." So sex, as God intended it and made it, is not bad but good. It is not dirty but clean. It only becomes bad and dirty when men and women abuse sex. But the abuse does not take away the true use. So sex is good - God made it.

Then, thirdly, there is an equality of value between the sexes. In Genesis 1.27 "male and female" together are equated with "man" - "in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them," it says. The image of God is fully reflected in the male man and the female woman together.

Fourthly, however, this verse reminds you that sexual differences are part of the created or natural order of things. To be human, as has been well put, is to share humanity with the opposite sex. Sexual distinctions are not matters of history or culture that can be changed by political decree. They are part of the created order. Many today think that these distinctions are not fundamental. Certainly radical feminists and gay liberationists think that the differences are just matters of human plumbing. But Jesus and the Bible say, "No!". What was created originally was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve or Eve and Evita.

And the fifth principle is that if sexual differences and sexuality is part of the created order, God's rules for sex are not just for believers, but for every human-being. They are, like the law of gravity, there in the nature of the universe. They are the Maker's instructions. I was trying to get my wife's car to start yesterday afternoon, but with no success. It needed someone who would be more likely to follow the instructions for a Vauxhall Astra than myself. I, therefore, called out the AA. Millions today need the help of the equivalent of the AA in matters of sexual morality. And who is that? Answer: anyone who knows and points you to your Maker's instructions as you have them in the Bible.

And the sixth principle you have in verses 7 - 8 of Mark 10. Look at those verses:

"'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one."

Jesus is here quoting Genesis chapter 2 and the second Creation account which spells out the creation of the man and woman in more detail. It concludes with these words in verse 24 of Genesis 2:

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."

The early Christians took this quotation as formative in their sex ethics. Jesus is here saying that God has made the sexes (as they are) so that it will be natural for a man [and a woman] to leave the parental home, and be united with his wife [or her husband]. But that uniting is not the sex act. It precedes the sex act. It is only after the uniting - which happens in a marriage event - that "the two will become one flesh." And Jesus adds: "so they are no longer two, but one." There is a deep psychological effect through sexual intercourse. So Jesus is clear. "Becoming one flesh" is not the same as the "uniting". They are two steps, with uniting preceding becoming one flesh. There is, therefore, to be no sex until there has been a "uniting". That is why sex before marriage and cohabitation is wrong.

But when, in accordance with God's design, there is a leaving, a uniting and a becoming one flesh - Jesus says God does something. It is more than just a man and a woman making an agreement. And this is the seventh principle here. Look at verse 9:

"Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

This is not in the Genesis account. This is from the mouth of Jesus himself. He is teaching something of seminal importance. It is with these words that biblical sex ethics reach their climax. Jesus is making it clear that marriage is to be for life - "till death do us part"; and it is obviously to be a sexually exclusive relationship. Jesus is being stricter than the schools of Shammai and Hillel. He is saying in the following verses that divorce and remarriage is wrong and a breaking of a divine bond. And in saying that he is putting an end to all forms of polygamy. If there can be no sequential serial marriages, there can be no additional marriages by the grafting in of another man or woman to the one flesh union. It is only two that must go into one. Any other arithmetic is to separate what God has joined. So polygamy is, and was, even in the case of godly men in the Old Testament, wrong.

In a nutshell that is an outline of Christian Sex Ethics. One, men and women defy God; two, sex is good, though often abused; three, the sexes are equal; four, the sexes are different; five, God's rules for sex and marriage are not just for believers; six, sex is for marriage alone; and seven, marriage is for life. But there are enemies that have to be fought - the World, the Flesh and the Devil. That is my second heading tonight.


It is a simple matter of fact that people who follow the Christian Sex Ethic do better themselves in so many different ways as do their children - on average. And one of the fundamental purposes of marriage, the Bible teaches, is to have children. Yes, there are those who do well where this ethic is ignored. But on average that is not the case. Take cohabitation. I quote:

"Cohabitation is a transient condition. Within five years of the birth of a child, 52 per cent of cohabitees have split up, compared with just eight per cent of married couples. It is estimated that a quarter of all children in Britain are living in lone-parent families, twice as many as in France or Germany ... According to a [fairly recent] report ... by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation children of separated families are twice as likely to have behavioural problems, perform less well in school, become sexually active at a younger age, suffer depression and turn to drugs, smoking and heavy drinking."

You see, God's instructions regarding sex and marriage are good for children and so for society. But the World that seduces you to ignore God's instructions is not. I quote again:

"A series of British long-term studies has shown a steady connection between broken homes and delinquency, as well as a greater propensity to youth crime among children born to teenage mothers and those whose parents have split up."

Then take sexually transmitted diseases - STD's. Nearly three-quarters of a million people in this country had STD's diagnosed last year. And what is the source of STD's? Answer: sexual immorality - having sex outside marriage. But the World now even endorses sexual experimentation. Here's a leader from The Times' commenting on these latest figures:

"What distinguishes these infections from others - and often renders them immune to both common sense and science, is, of course, sex [and the fact that ... ] the West has thrown itself into a prolonged revolution in sexual practice and assumptions, one of which now holds that feverish teenage coupling is a rite of passage too instinctual and inevitable to be worth challenging."

But the World and its values are in direct contradiction to the teaching of Jesus. So it has got to be challenged.

Then there is the Flesh. Like the word "world", in the Bible "flesh" is both good and bad - good as part of God's creation: bad when it goes against God and his law. The Flesh relates to nature. The Bible makes it clear that there is a hierarchy of God, Man and then Nature. God is to be over all human beings; and human beings, following God's directions, are to be over, and, if they can, steering nature. That hierarchy, emphatically, is not to be reversed as Nature, Man and God with nature over man and man over God. But that is what many today are saying: Nature, they say, is ultimate; man is just a throw up of nature; and God a mere figment of man's imagination. So if nature is supreme, give in to nature. Do what comes naturally. If you feel a sexual urge, fulfil it as soon as you can.

Two weeks ago the British Board of Film Classification gave an 18 certificate to a film that for the first time contains, as they report, "frequent strong real sex". And last week the ICA - the Institute of Contemporary Arts and funded by our taxes to the tune of £1.1 million - the ICA has been having a celebration of pornography, entitled Erot - ICA. All this most likely will stimulate greater uncontrolled sexual activity, as taboos are more eroded and people submit to nature. Yet this is so sad as well as so evil. And that is because of the third traditional enemy of the soul, the Devil.

Jesus says that the Devil is real. Evil is more than the sum total of individual misdeeds. And Jesus says that that "super-plus" is a "he" and not an "it". And the Devil, says Jesus, is the Father of lies; and he has a field day of lying in matters of sex and marriage. Take the matter of "the flesh" and sexual release itself. First, a surfeit of pornography does not lead to better sexual gratification but less. To suggest otherwise is a lie of the Devil. One actor in one of the first plays involving nudity, said: "initially, perhaps it is erotic ... after you've been really saturated ... [you become] impotent for a while and that's nothing unusual."

On the other hand research is now showing that those who follow the basic Christian sex ethic of no sex before marriage and faithfulness within marriage, have, on average, better sex lives. And the Devil lies in so many other ways. One of the most serious today relates to STD's and the advocacy of condoms for the unmarried in so called "Safe Sex" campaigns which have now been renamed "Safer Sex" campaigns. These campaigns are based on a lie or at least a very great economy with the truth. You see, if people use condoms perfectly for contraception, the failure rate is low at 3% per annum. But - and this is the big "but" - typical use (that is to say, the social reality of imperfect use) - typical use has a failure rate of 14%. So for disease prevention the failure rate will be higher than 14% as a woman is infertile for a significant period each month. To advocate condoms for the unmarried, therefore, while not aggressively advocating sexual abstinence until marriage - the 100% guaranteed alternative - is not only immoral but pernicious.

However, perhaps one of the most serious lies of the Devil is that marriage is just a piece of paper. That is a lie because marriage is a gift of God, as the Bible teaches. It is a structure that supports the relationship of two people. A couple need more than their feelings for one another. They need social and institutional support. So God has given them lifelong marriage.

The Devil is, indeed, the Father of lies and as the litany reminds us we need to be delivered from "all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil."

Thirdly, and finally, then, THE DIVINE WAY

I have left out much tonight. I have left out the Bible's teaching on singleness, or on the fact that for the believer, marriage is only to be with another believer, and many other things including what happens about marriages in heaven. I shall be speaking about that last subject, all being well, next Sunday morning in our series of studies in Matthew's Gospel. But as we draw to a close, let me just say something on how Christ suggests you deal with problems and temptations that you face in this area of sex ethics.

First, he says, "Be definite". Say, "No!" to temptation. The passage that immediately precedes our verses tonight says this (Mark 9.43-47):

"If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell."

This is a graphic way of saying that if what you do, or where you go, or what you see causes you to sin, be ruthless and stop doing, going or seeing.

Secondly, think of the children. Marriage is for children as well as adults. But since the sixties sexual ethics - or the lack of them - too often have only been about adult gratification and children have suffered. But the verses following our verses show how Jesus cares for children. Look at verse 14:

"Let the little children come to me, [said Jesus] and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."

Thirdly, if you follow Christ there will need to be sacrifices. This is what the rich young man had to learn. You read about him in verse 17 and following of Mark 10. So in verse 26 the disciples say, "who then can be saved?" Jesus replied, verse 27:

"With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."

And, fourthly, remember the gospel. It is summarized in verse 45 of chapter 10:

"For ... the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

So let me conclude on this note.

I expect there are a number here tonight who are mixed up sexually, or maritally. You know you've made a mess of your life. Well, Jesus came to "give his life as a ransom for many" - literally, "instead of many". The good news is that Jesus Christ died in your place, bearing all your sexual and marital guilt and any other guilt, so that you can be cleansed and freed to live for God and be effective in his service. Remember, "all things are possible with God."

And there are many others here tonight who are not mixed up sexually. But you are just sitting by and letting other people be mixed up, because of your inaction and passivity. You are not standing up for Christ and challenging the forces of decadence in our society and working for the re-institutionalizing and the re-privileging of marriage. Well, Remember the verse that immediately precedes chapter 10 - Mark 9.50:

"Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."

The way for good order in the church and the world - for real peace - is for Christians to retain their saltiness and to act as preservatives in a decaying society. We all, then, need to pray for forgiveness and protection - some of us for (and from) sins of commission, negative things we have done and might do; others of us for (and from) sins of omission, positive things we have failed and might fail to do. So after a moment's silence, when we can pray quietly as is relevant to ourselves, with our different backgrounds and experiences, we will conclude with the clause of the Litany I've referred to.

"From fornication, and all other deadly sin; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us. Amen.

Back to top