Our subject for tonight is "Sex and Marriage". There is something wonderfully attractive about a happy marriage. I learnt recently of an elderly couple, married for 60 years, but then the wife had a terminal illness. She’d always been open with her husband except for one thing. She kept secret a shoe box in the top of her wardrobe. However, before she died she asked him to bring it to her. She then asked him to open it. He did so and found two crocheted little dolls his wife had made, and a stack of notes worth thousands of pounds! She explained the contents like this: "Before I got married my grandmother told me the secret of a happy marriage was never to argue. But if ever I got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and crochet a doll." Her husband was very moved. There were only two dolls in the box. So she had only been angry with him two times in all those 60 years of marriage! "But what about the money?" he asked. "Oh!" she said, "that's the money I made from selling the dolls."
Well, tonight I want us to look at the reading we had for our Epistle and particularly Hebrews 13 verse 4 that is about sex and marriage. And my prayer is that you will go out of this building not only wanting to live by Christian standards yourself but trying to work for a return to Christian moral standards with regard to sex and marriage. And you will do that not because you blindly follow tradition, but because you see that God’s teaching on this found in the Bible is best for society, best for individuals and best for children. But that is just what you would expect if the Bible is God's word and God made you and everyone else. So, of course, he knows what is best for you and the world. And that biblical teaching is summarized for us in Hebrews chapter 13 verse 4:
“Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”
And read in the context of verse 1 of Hebrews 13 which says,
“keep loving each other as brothers,”
this ethic is not opposed to, but all part of, the ethic of love. Well, that is what I want us to think about in the rest of the time we have together and so much by way of introduction. My headings tonight are determined by the verse and will be, first,MARRIAGE… HONOURED BY ALL; secondly, THE … BED KEPT PURE; and, thirdly, FOR GOD WILL JUDGE.
First, MARRIAGE … HONOURED BY ALL
We need to ask three questions – one, what is marriage? Two, why honour it? And, three, who should honour it? So, one, what is marriage? In the Church of England marriage service we say, I quote:
“The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God in creation”.
Jesus puts things like this, as we heard in our Gospel reading – Mark 10.7:
“at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.' 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. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."
Jesus there teaches that sex and marriage are to do with creation – the way the world is. His teaching, therefore, is not just for believers but for everyone. And he is saying that God’s plan for human existence is for us to share humanity with the opposite sex and that there should be, first, a leaving of your father and mother; secondly, a uniting with your wife or husband; and, thirdly, then and only then, this union consummated by sexual intercourse, making you both “become one flesh”. There should be no “becoming one flesh” until you are “united” with your wife or husband; and this should be after you “leave” your father and mother. And then says Jesus: “[the married couple] are no longer two, but one. Therefore [and this is his new teaching that has produced Christian marriage that has helped change the world], what God has joined together, let man not separate.” This union is to be lifelong and dissolved only by death.
Marriages, you see, start when socially recognized vows for lifelong faithfulness are voluntarily made and witnessed. And the marriage is consummated with the first act of sexual intercourse. Marriage, as the marriage service says and the Bible teaches, is God’s gift – it is not our achievement. It is a social institution with its own rules and structure within which all the things that people want – having sex; having a loving relationship between the couple; and sooner or later having and nurturing children – those things can and should take place. Marriage, therefore, theologically precedes and helps create the relationship. It is not the relationship that creates the marriage as many falsely think today. We don’t achieve a marriage by being successful in a relationship, but if not, try again. Too many today think like that. If their relationship is less than perfect, after a period of time they say, “let’s try another marriage, for our marriage is dead.” That is simply not true. Marriages do not die. The emotional relationship may seem to be dying, but not the marriage. A marriage is not that kind of thing. It is a permanent social structure. In healthy societies it is socially supported through laws and privileges. And as the Bible shows, it is a God given social structure. Relationships may be dying within marriages. But marriages are the fences within which those relationships can be mended.
All married couples have ups and downs. In marriage classes I teach that in the first year of marriage if there are no ups and downs, the couple aren’t normal or are not properly communicating with each other. There will always be some level of friction, certainly in the first year. But Christ’s teaching about no remarriages gives people the freedom to work out their problems with honesty and openness without fear – the fear that the other partner will up sticks and go off. So much for, what is marriage?
That brings us to question two, why honour marriage – as this verse tells us to? First, because it is a command of God. That primeval command in the Bible to the first man and woman was:
“be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth” (Gen 1.28)
. Marriage has since been seen as a general call to many and, vitally, for the generation of the next generation. It is the norm. It contrasts with the special call to a few to singleness and the celibate life. Jesus teaches about that in Matthew 19 – we will think about that in a moment. So, unless called otherwise, you honour marriage by getting married yourself and living as God intended in a healthy marriage. Yes, as a Christian, when the time is right you must only marry another Christian (1 Cor 7.39). And it is for life – you can’t then become single again by leaving your married partner. So marrying is honouring marriage and a command of God.
But, secondly, you should honour marriage because marriage is good for you, and for society at large and especially for children. This has been known for so long. But the wickedness is that this is not taught or sufficiently publicized. A recent report from the Office of National Statistics has published, I quote, “definitive proof that married couples live longer, enjoy better health and can rely on more home care in old age than their divorced, widowed, single and cohabiting peers. Children who live with their married parents are also healthier, and can expect to stay in full-time education for longer, whatever their economic background.” You've heard about the terrible abuse of Baby P this past week. But did you know that according to one study the incidence of child abuse was 20 times higher for children living with their cohabiting parents and 33 times higher among children living with their mother and her boyfriend compared to children living with their biological married parents. Of course these are all averages. That must be remembered. But they are facts that are now unassailable. So why honour marriage? Because God commands it and that command is good for you.
So, now question three, “who should honour marriage?” And the answer is “everyone”. Our verse says it is to be honoured “by all.” Now, this is hard for some. There are people, and there will be some here tonight, who would love to honour marriage by getting married but they remain single. Jesus spoke on one occasion of three sorts of people who were single. You read about them in Matthew 19.10-12. One group were called to be single “because of the kingdom of heaven”. But “others,” said Jesus, “were born that way”. That group will include the tiny minority who by nature seem only attracted to people of the same sex. A third group were “made that way [that is, single] by men”. And this group will include those who are single not because they had a conscious calling to the single life, but because of other people’s actions or inaction. Perhaps some men failed to propose marriage when they should have. Or some women failed to say “Yes”, when they should have. If you are one of those last two groups tonight, it can be hard honouring marriage. But remember that Jesus Christ was single. He knew what it was to be lonely. He knew all the temptations that come to single people. So remember those words about Jesus written earlier in Hebrews 4.14-15:
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin.”
He understands you; he can forgive you; and he can help you. So marriage is to be honoured by all. No one is excepted. We must now move on to those next words in our verse about,
Secondly, THE … BED being KEPT PURE
The “bed”, of course, is a euphemism for sexual intercourse within marriage. And the phrase can be translated as an indicative not an imperative. It can be “the bed [or sexual intercourse] is pure”. That is to say, it is not inherently “impure” and “nasty” as some people have thought. Some have had a low view of marriage – as a second best. Even some in the Church have suggested that sex in marriage is a necessary evil. The most holy state, they have said, and the purest state is being celibate and abstaining from sex for ever. In New Testament times Paul had to warn Timothy about those who “forbid people to marry” (1 Tim 4.3). But our verse is saying that sex is pure and holy – but only in marriage. What makes the marriage bed [or sex] “impure” is sex before and sex outside marriage. The next part of our verse refers to adultery and sexual immorality.
God has created us as sexual beings, But he demands sexual abstinence before marriage and outside marriage. Then, after and inside marriage, being sexually active is not only permitted, it is positively required (except for some special reason such as prayer and then only for a short time). You read about that in 1 Corinthians 7.5. The Bible’s teaching on sex has been well summed by the English bishops in a report that came out not so long ago. They said there is ,
“in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable” (Issues in Human Sexuality).
And it is so silly and so sad not to follow that teaching. For one thing, if you keep to this sexual ethic, you have better sex. Again it is a question of God knowing best. As long ago as the 1970s there were studies that indicated that religiously committed women achieved higher levels of sexual satisfaction in sexual intercourse with their husbands than did moderately religious or non-religious women. These findings were then confirmed in the 1990s in the massive Sex in America survey, where, I quote, “the women most likely to achieve orgasm each and every time … are believe it or not, conservative Protestants” (Time magazine). And other research shows that those who follow the Christian sex ethic are on average better in bed. Nor do you need rocket science to see why that is likely. For one thing, faithful married couples are not tempted to be comparing each other with other bed partners. There haven’t been any. For another thing there is no fear of any sexually transmitted diseases. Theirs is the only “safe sex”. It’s been said that sex is like a razor blade. You can use it to sharpen your pencil. But if you do, it’s then hard to shave with. So the bed is not kept pure when there is sexual intercourse before or outside heterosexual marriage. There are two important footnotes, however, to that simple statement.
First, Jesus teaches that adultery is not just in the act but also in the mind.
In the sermon on the Mount Jesus taught that:
“anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5.28).
That clearly doesn’t mean looking at a woman and thinking she is attractive. Billy Graham, the American Evangelist, was reported earlier in November, on his 90th birthday, as saying that in the run up to the American Presidential Elections he was courted by both the candidates. He wouldn’t say who he’d voted for, but he said he found Sarah Palin “mighty pretty”! It is, of course, looking and then allowing lustful thoughts that is wrong. That, says Jesus, is already to have committed adultery in your heart.
Secondly, Jesus teaches that we should keep sex in proportion. He taught that life in heaven will not be sexual life. He said:
"The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage ... they are like the angels” (Luke 20.34-35).
Yes, there is to be a glorious resurrection and recreation of the body one day when Christ returns. But sexual activity will be transcended. For those who have messed up sexually in this life, that is good news. For all single people that is good news. For some happily married couples, however, there is a worry when they hear that teaching. As C.S.Lewis wrote, they imagine ‘the withering alternative either of bodies which are hardly recognizable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast.” But Lewis reassures them. Let me read to you how he goes on: “As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No’, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.” In heaven you will discover what is infinitely better than the best of sex and for everyone. Paul says,
"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2.9).
So sexual sin can be in the mind and you need to keep things in proportion. Which brings us …
Thirdly, to our last heading FOR GOD WILL JUDGE
“[Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure,] for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”
There will be a judgment one day and the actual judge will be the risen Jesus Christ himself. Do you believe that? Paul told the Athenians that the proof was the Resurrection. That’s as good a proof as you can get. And prominent among those things for which people will be excluded from the kingdom of God are adultery and sexual immorality. Listen to 1 Corinthians 6.9-11:
“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
And in that category of “the sexually immoral” the Bible would have us believe are those who teach sexual immorality (and can be in the churches even and in schools and in clinics and in the media). They are like a prophetess in the early church who “by her teaching misleads my [Christ’s] servants into sexual immorality” (see Rev 2.20). But now is the day of grace, not judgment. In Corinth, as there will be in this church here tonight, there were those who had messed up sexually – “the sexually immoral, adulterers, male prostitutes and homosexual offenders”. The very next verse in 1 Corinthians 6 – verse 11, says this: “and that is what some of you were. Then comes one of those great “buts” in the Bible:
“but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
These people in the church in Corinth had turned to Christ; they had admitted they were sinners. They didn’t try to pretend that sexual immorality of whatever sort was good. They admitted it was bad. They wanted to change. And Christ forgave them. If they hadn’t been baptized they were baptized, they “were washed” and “were sanctified”. They received the Holy Spirit to start living more as God intended. For they were “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God”. Christ bore the judgment they deserved on the Cross of Calvary – in their place. They were now free and justified. And if they, sadly, sinned again and repented, again they were and would be forgiven.
Who needs to turn to Christ and repent like that tonight? And if you have messed up sexually, remember that while the consequences can remain until heaven – for example, sexual disease can take its toll and broken marriages can certainly take their toll – nevertheless God can wonderfully reweave your situation for his glory when you turn to Christ. I must conclude.
On one occasion Jesus denounced the people of respectable Capernaum for not repenting although they had witnessed many of his miracles. And he said this:
“I tell you it will be more tolerable for Sodom [the notorious homosexual city] on the day of judgment than for you” (Matt 11.24).
The worst sin, therefore, is not sexual immorality but rejecting Jesus Christ. But when you accept Jesus Christ you accept his teaching on sex and marriage and realize how good it is – for society, for the individual and for children.