We are in a series of sermons on Jesus' famous 'Sermon on the Mount'. And we've reached Matthew 5.27-32 and Jesus' teaching on sex. How important that teaching of Jesus is for the Western world and Britain at this time in our history! But why? Because in society at large there is currently the promotion and endorsement of what the Bible and the Christian tradition teach is sexually immoral, not sexually moral. And the results are serious and tragic.
When preparing this sermon, I looked at the day's newspapers. First, was The Times of London. There on page one was the headline, "Lover's revenge" and a report that "an Olympic equestrian competitor used pig's blood to vandalize the home of her lover, a married Conservative peer, after she caught him with a third woman."
Then page one of the Newcastle Chronicle was taken up with a picture of a man and the headline "GP's Secret Camera Claim – jury told of surgery filming allegations." And inside the paper you were told that the "GP had 19,000 images of women on his computer" and in various states of undress. Then pages two and three were all about this year's Northern Pride Festival and explaining it had the full support and endorsement of the Police. But is that not shocking? For Gay Pride is celebrating the right to homosexual genital acts that the Bible teaches are incompatible with the kingdom of God. And the Church of England also says, like fornication and adultery, they fall short of God's ideal and "are to be met by a call to repentance" – the opposite of celebration. How we need Jesus' teaching and Matthew 5.27-32 our passage for tonight!
And my headings as we look at this passage are first, The Heart's Desire; secondly, Drastic Action Needed; and, thirdly, Marriage for Life.
1. The Heart's Desire
Jesus has so far been teaching, counter-culturally, first, about human happiness in his sayings about being truly "blessed". Then he's made it clear that faith in him should not just be something private, for believers must be as salt and light in our needy world. Then we heard how important the Old Testament is. For, in Matthew 5.17, speaking about the Old Testament Law and Prophets, Jesus says: "I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them." And, in verse 20, Jesus says emphatically, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
Next we heard how that works out. For Jesus takes some of the Ten Commandments and shows how keeping the law is more than keeping to the letter of the law. It relates to our hearts and minds. So the sixth commandment is not just about murder. It includes anger and abusive language as well.
And now Jesus deals with the seventh commandment. So verse 27, and our subject tonight, says:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'."
The Pharisees and scribes certainly knew about the law on adultery. But they thought that because they hadn't actually had sexual intercourse with someone other than their own wife, they were fine. But Jesus' says, 'Not necessarily!' Verse 28:
"But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent [literally 'to desire her'] has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
That is so clear. Jesus is saying you can commit adultery in your heart and mind because of your eyes. And why this is so important is that most adultery will start with the eye and then the heart, before the mind leads to action.
In the world of first century Palestine there was a special need for these words, particularly in Jerusalem. Much of the city was, and is, built on its steep hill (or mountain) sides. So if your house was high up, you could look down on houses below you. This was a problem for King David, with his palace high up. For just after his siesta, getting a bit of exercise one early evening, he looked down on a house below him, and what did he see? With probably the cramped condition of her house, he saw a woman going outside and somehow having a bath and obviously naked. 2 Samuel 11.2-3:
"It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and enquired about the woman."
You need to read on for the terrible things that followed David's looking at, and getting sexually excited by, that naked woman, Bathsheba; and so then enquiring about her. This was looking at a woman with "lustful intent" if ever. Tradition says, nor need we doubt, the Psalm we said this evening was written by David after he had come to his senses following the wicked murder of Bathsheba's husband, Uriah. Sure, you can't blame David for seeing her naked, and thinking her "very beautiful". But then he should have gone back inside to get on with his work or somehow stopped looking at, and thinking about, Bathsheba and planning how to sleep with her. But, this he was doing.
Now, at this point a caution. We have to be careful. Our verses tonight are necessarily negative, because sexual temptation is so strong that you need negative teaching. But Jesus nowhere teaches that natural sexual relations and excitement within heterosexual monogamous life-long marriage is, other than, right and God-given and to be enjoyed. For all aspects of marriage need to be protected and endorsed because marriage is so essential and such a human good. Heterosexual monogamous life-long marriage helps ensure safe families for children, the good of the parenting couple and the good of the nation. That is why there are boundaries around marriage, within which, and only within which, sexual relations are legitimate. So this necessary negative teaching here in Matthew 5 is to be balanced with the teaching, for example, of the love poetry of the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. And then there is the book of Proverbs, itself balancing the positive and the negative. Take Proverbs 5.18-23:
"rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? For a man's ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he ponders all his paths. The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray."
That last remark, of course, reminds us that Jesus' sexual ethics are the only way to lasting sexual health with the elimination of sexually transmitted infections – that is to say, his ethic of abstinence before and outside marriage and faithfulness within marriage. So the heart's desire needs to be for that which is right, not wrong. That brings us secondly, to:
2. Drastic Action Needed
Jesus now makes it clear that sexual sin is very serious. He says that hell can be the consequence of not taking sexual sin seriously. Someone may be saying, 'Are you being serious?' Well, look at verses 29-30:
"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell."
Jesus has just been talking about "looking at a woman" leading to looking "with lustful intent" and creating heart "adultery". And Jesus is now saying, because this is all so serious, you need to take drastic action. Because the eye is the organ for looking at a person and the hand is involved in various ways in sexual activity, Jesus talks about tearing out an eye and cutting off a hand to emphasize this drastic action. He is using this gruesome analogy to indicate the urgency of things. Of course, he is not wanting bodily mutilation but drastic and firm action.
And this needs to be applied by us individually for ourselves to all the ways modern technology presents, and provides, sexual temptation. This can come through smart phones, magazines, TV, plays, films and the whole panoply of modern pornography and other incitements to immorality.
But we also have to apply it and start to take drastic action in the wider world (as we are able) in medicine, education, the law and, certainly, the wider church. That is in the light of the all invasive modern Western world-view that is now going under the name of 'muscular secularism'. This is clearly in defiance of the Bible's teaching. For it says that each individual is born sinless with a variety of innate desires. And mental health and happiness will only be achieved, if, as much as possible, these desires can be satisfied. So what must be avoided at all costs is other people telling you that some of your desires are inherently wrong, unhealthy and sinful. The exception is, if they are so obviously directly damaging someone else.
Of course, peaceful drastic action is never easy and is often costly. But God will honour you for it. Take Joseph and Potiphar's wife who wanted to seduce him, as we heard in our Old Testament reading. But Joseph's saying 'No!' and fleeing in that sexual situation was essential to the salvation of the world. That was because of what then happened to Joseph in prison. It resulted in his being summoned much later to see the Pharaoh and so becoming 'Prime Minister' of Egypt. He then helped save the people of Israel for whom God had great plans for the world through Jesus. For Israel was then just an embryonic and tiny group; and Joseph prevented their being wiped out by famine.
So what drastic action do you need to take personally, for your own life, but also publicly to help others as a parent, teacher, nurse or doctor, lawyer or wherever you work, or are involved, in the wider world? The question is, do you believe that Jesus is right? Jesus says that the heart has to be right as well as the outward actions. So how we all need to pray for the Holy Spirit to change hearts and open eyes to the truth. And how we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to give us courage to take peacefully any drastic action that Jesus requires us to take publicly to help remedy this national sexual chaos. That then brings us, thirdly, to:
3. Marriage for Life
Jesus is saying, sexual purity in heart as well as action is fundamental. We have seen that, first, Jesus reckons that going wrong in this area can lead to hell – yes, hell! But, secondly, without seeming to blink, Jesus goes on to oppose marriage breakdown and remarriage with a partner still living. Why? Surely because the sexual hypocrisy, and then chaos, he has been talking about will invariably lead to a divorce and remarriage culture. Look at verses 31-32:
"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."
This is really a trailer in Matthew's Gospel for what later Matthew reports Jesus as saying and teaching in chapter 19. His teaching there is in response to the Pharisees trying to trip him up by drawing him into a current Jewish divorce controversy. Rabbi Hillel said you could divorce almost for anything – such as spoiling the cooking. Rabbi Shammai said it was only for sexual impurity. So let me read Matthew 19.3-6:
"And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, 'Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?' He answered, 'Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh"? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.'"
That is the fundamental reality. "From the beginning" (whenever that was) and before the Fall, God created the male and the female human beings, Adam and Eve. You read about that in Genesis 1-2 when the institution of marriage was created. And, we are told, marriage happens when the man leaves his father and mother (in a dateable recognisable event – he is not just going out for a stroll) and then "holds fast to his wife" (an equally recognisable event) and the "two became one flesh". For they then consummate this leaving and uniting by sexual intercourse – "so they are no longer two but one flesh". But Jesus then adds his own teaching to the Genesis account to make things crystal clear in Matthew 19.6:
"What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."
This shocked the Pharisees – Matthew 19.7-9:
"They said to him, 'Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?' He said to them, 'Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.'"
Jesus is saying that there should be no divorce, because as Jesus has just said, God has joined the man to the woman; and that is for life. Yes, sometimes because, say for violence, there has to be a separation. There shouldn't then be a second marriage with the first partner alive, because such a marriage, says Jesus, is adulterous; if possible there should be reconciliation, says Paul. And that teaching totally shocked the disciples and not just the Pharisees - Matthew 19.10:
"The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.""
However, you ask, 'why, if you can divorce for sexual immorality was this so shocking? For that is what Rabbi Shammai taught and so Jesus was not being any stricter than many of the Jews.' Well, the translation "sexual immorality" is misleading. I haven't time to go into great detail. But the fact is that more and more scholars are agreeing, and saying, that the word here translated "sexual immorality", (being not the word for adultery), cannot mean any normal sexual intercourse outside marriage. Rather it means what it means in Acts 15.20 and 29 and 1 Corinthians 5.1. For there it refers to incestuous relationships identified in Leviticus 18. Here is the 1 Corinthians 5.1 example, using the same word:
"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife."
Therefore, it seems the Jerusalem Bible translation is good for verse 32 in our chapter 5:
"But I say this to you, everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of an illicit marriage, makes her an adulteress, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery."
And, of course, such an illicit marriage was headline news in Jesus day, as Matthew explains in Matthew 14.3-4, where we read:
"For [King] Herod had seized John [the Baptist] and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because John had been saying to him, "It is not lawful for you to have her.""
So Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul (in 1 Corinthians 7.10-11) are all agreeing – Jesus said no remarriage after a marital separation. Death alone frees a marriage. However, a forbidden, incestuous marriage has to be stopped. And, may I say, modern social science is confirming Jesus' wisdom. For we know, that on average, children particularly suffer through marriage breakdowns and step families in so many ways, but as do parents, and ultimately society itself. Interestingly, in chapter 19 Matthew adds, as a footnote to this teaching on divorce, Jesus welcoming children and blessing them.
I must conclude. I do so with three comments.
- One, you obviously need Christ's strength though his Holy Spirit as you seek to obey Jesus' exacting and, sometimes, hard teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.
- But, two, you (and we all) will fail in some measure. That means no one can be wrongly judgmental about the failures of others, however bad.
- Then, three (and finally), however minimally or maximally you are mixed up sexually, there is forgiveness through the Cross of Christ as you repent. And remember, if you can, John chapter 4. Jesus is there reported as meeting a totally sexually-mixed up woman who had got through five marriages and was currently cohabiting. But Christ revealed her sin and the Holy Spirit then used her. For she, it seems, helped introduce her whole town to Jesus. So never despair. God can forgive you, as you repent, and then use you, as he sees fit, in the light of your experience. Like David (Psalm 51.13) you can "teach transgressors" God's ways, and "sinners will turn back" to him. If you've had bad experiences, you can teach helpfully from them.