sex

Marriage and Sexuality (Pillars of Faith Series)

11-22-sermon1.jpg

“We believe that God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female. Together they reflect the image and nature of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman as delineated in Scripture (Genesis 2:18-25; Matthew 19:5-6). It is intended to be a covenant by which they unite themselves for life in a single, exclusive union, ordered toward the well-being of the spouses an designed to be the environment for the procreation and upbringing of children.”

Sex is a topic that more than most others strikes at our emotions, our sense of self-worth, even our sense of identity. I think this kind of tension actually matches the importance of this topic biblically.[1] The Apostle Paul wrote that whatever we do, even if it’s just eating and drinking, we should do it to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). That includes sex. And like other natural acts, sometimes we glorify God with what we do, and sometimes we do not.

I’m going to make a case this morning for a biblical view of sex and of marriage. I’m not going to talk about the challenges of being single[2], or whether it’s better to be single or married[3], or about roles in marriage[4], or about overcoming or recovering from sexual sin[5]. Those are important topics, but they are not the focus today. I am going to talk about a biblical view of sex, which will lead us into a biblical view of marriage.

There are at least three common misconceptions about sex found either in church or in our culture.

  • The first misconception is that sex is simply a natural appetite like eating or drinking. The fact that we want to have sex means we ought to have sex; in fact, ignoring or stifling our impulse is unhealthy. If someone is cranky, they just need to have sex. In the 60’s, the way to stop making war was to make love. The idea is that if sexual satisfaction follows sexual desire, all will be well.
  • The second misconception is that sex is embarrassing, maybe even shameful, and our sex drive is something that needs to be squelched. I grew up in a church culture that sent this message. When people got married, they had this nagging thought that they probably shouldn't be enjoying sex. They had absorbed the notion that sexual desire was dirty and sexually desirable people were somehow bad, and that was not an easy lesson to unlearn.[6]
  • The third misconception is that sex is a critical form of self-expression and personal fulfillment, a way to find yourself and be truly happy. In this view, sex is primarily for individual fulfillment and self-realization. Those who want to put boundaries around sex are actually stifling the personal growth of others. At best, these moral policemen are jealous of the sex lives of others or scared by the power of sexuality. At worst they are bullying or coercing people to accept the bully’s notion of sexuality morality.

A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE ON SEX

The Bible offers a far more complex, compelling and beautiful view.

  • The Bible disagrees that sex is something about which we should be ashamed of or embarrassed. God created sex and sexuality; the Bible celebrates it (Song of Solomon; Proverbs 5;19); the New Testament actually commands it for people who are married (1 Corinthians 7). The Bible is clear that sex is supposed to bring, pleasure, joy, laughter, intimacy, trust, self-giving, mutual care and comfort.
  • The Bible agrees that sex is a powerful drive that God placed in us, but disagrees that ignoring or stifling impulses is necessarily unhealthy. Like our drives for food and drink, the sex drive has been distorted because of sin. Sex needs boundaries not because sex is something to be feared, but because sex is something to be revered. This is done by living within God’s design, and sometimes that means we will go against our desires. The latest World Magazine had an article about a pastor, a married man who struggled with same-sex attraction. At one point he noted, “What I have to tell myself over and over again: To act on my impulses is a denial of my real that that God created. To not act on that is an affirmation of myself.” [7]
  • The Bible agrees that sex can bring individual happiness and fulfillment (read Song of Solomon if you have any questions), but the Bible disagrees that this is the purpose of sex. Throughout the rest of the morning I will be making the case that sex is so much more than this. 

THE BIBLICAL CONTEXT FOR  SEX: COVENANT

I am going to offer a biblical view of sex that may use language that is unfamiliar to you, at least in this context: God intends sex to be an act of covenantal commitment between a man and a woman. Let’s start with what we mean by covenantal commitment.  In biblical times, a covenant was a strong bond, an oath, in which two people would pledge mutual faithfulness and commitment, often at the cost of their life. There would be equal privileges and responsibilities between the parties involved; they would each played a necessary and complementary role in fulfilling this mutual oath. Covenants were complex, serious, and deeply binding.

 When Adam and Eve “cleave,” that’s a covenant word (Genesis 2:22-25. Malachi 2:14 and Proverbs 2:17 also use ‘covenant’ to describe marriage). I am going to quote Tim Keller and his wife extensively here (from The Meaning Of Marriage) because they explain this better than I can:

“The covenant brings every aspect of two person’s lives together. They essentially merge into a single legal, social, economic unit… they donate themselves wholly to the other… Sex is understood as both a sign of the personal, legal union and a means to accomplish it. The Bible says don’t unite with someone physically unless you are also willing to unite with the person emotionally, personally, socially, economically, and legally. Don’t become physically naked and vulnerable to the other person without becoming vulnerable in every other way, because you have given up your freedom and bound yourself in marriage. Then, once you have given yourself in marriage, sex is a way of maintaining and deepening that union as the years go by. 

Sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’ You must not use sex to say anything less. So, according to the Bible, a covenant is necessary for sex. It creates a place of security for vulnerability and intimacy. But though a marriage covenant is necessary for sex, sex is also necessary for the maintenance of the covenant. It is your covenant renewal service.”

 This was entirely at odds with how the rest of the world viewed sex when the Bible was written. Sex was just simply not associated with all these ideas. Broadly speaking, there were those who used others and those who were used. Gender and age were usually of no consequence. Sex was one of the more obvious ways in which the strong used the weak for their purposes. [8]

The idea that the act of sex was meant to initiate the covenant of marriage or that an ongoing, active sex life as a ‘covenant renewal service’ probably sounds as unusual to us as it did to the original audience. Yet we see that from the beginning God was declaring that even the sex lives of His people were to be holy - literally “called out” or separated, set aside for God’s design and purpose.

This idea of starting and renewing a covenant provided a constant reminder between both husband and wife would have entirely changed the dynamic of sex. Instead of using or being used, sex was a way of saying, “I have committed to you, I have pledged to give myself wholly to you. We are bound together in every way and on every level. We have no secrets; we are naked and unashamed; we are a covenanted union of service, sacrifice and love.”

Let me give you just one example of how this shows up in one of the most famous of love poems, the Song of Solomon (or the Song of Songs). There are two times in Song of Solomon that the bride says, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine; he browses among the lilies” (2:16 and 6:3) Have you ever wondered what that means? What does belonging to each other have to do with browsing through a flower garden? In Song of Solomon 4:5, Solomon praises his wife by saying, “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.” When it’s her turn, she says, “I am my beloved’s an he is mine” then borrows his metaphor and makes him the gazelle. Why? The marital covenant is designed to be initiated, sealed and celebrated by sexual love.[9]

Considering the profound nature of a covenant and the role sex plays in creating and affirming it, it shouldn't surprise us that from the beginning the Bible insists that any sexual activity ought to be limited to the marriage covenant.  When we engage in an act of covenantal promise when it is not a promise, we break God’s design – we sin[10] - and initiate events that have a ripple effect that contributes to the brokenness of the world (the Old Testament is full of examples of this).

We want to have sex just be about bodies and biology when we so choose, and have it be about affection, commitment and love when we so choose. It doesn’t work that way. By design, “Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’” (Keller) Sex was meant to initiate or confirm a lasting, legal, personal, all-encompassing covenant. And when our bodies communicate something different from what we say or believe, there’s a deep tension that arises.

I think we know this even if we don’t consciously think it or say it. Think of the phrases, “This is no strings attached. This is just a hook-up. We are just friends. This won’t change anything between us. Let’s not read too much into this.” But the words we exchange and the desire to ‘not let it get complicated’ won’t change our bodies or God’s design. Sex was made to unite and bind us in an exclusive, permanent covenant, not make us wonder if we performed well enough, or if the other person will be there in the morning, or how we can go about it next time without getting so emotionally involved.

I Corinthians 6:17ff  is often quoted in reference to this binding nature inherent to sex. Paul notes, “Do you not know that a person who is united in intimacy with a prostitute is one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’” 

Paul wasn’t just saying, “Do you know if you combine bodies you will combine bodies?” That’s pretty obvious. Paul is simply referring back to Genesis 2:24 (and Jesus’ affirmation of it in Matthew 19) where a husband and wife ‘cleave’ together, reminding his readers that every sex act is an act of covenant whether we want it to be or not. I suspect that’s why Paul says that sexual sins are unique (1 Corinthians 6:18). There is no other act that by its very nature is meant to initiate or affirm a covenant. The context of sex is covenantal marriage. We are not designed to give our bodies in this way to someone with whom we have not made a covenant for life.[i]

Christopher West has written that “all questions of morality, then, are questions about how to align human desire with the divine design so we can reach our heavenly destiny. This is the proper context in which to understand the Christian sexual ethic. It’s not a prudish list of prohibitions designed to keep us from having fun in this life; it’s a call to realign our desires with authentic love so we can be truly happy both here and in the next life.” 

THE BIBLICAL NATURE OF MARRIAGE

So we've talked about a biblical view of sex as well as its covenantal context. Now let’s look at the nature of that marriage covenant. The Bible reveals the theology; God’s creation provides further support for this biblical ideal. Let’s start with what the Bible says about the theology behind the nature of marriage.

1. The Bible Reveals How Marriage Is Meant To Reflect The Nature Of God 

 A. Male and female together display the fullness of God’s image. “Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground. So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27).  

We see right away in Genesis a hint of Trinity – a God who has one essence, but three persons. We also see that in order for humanity to bear that image, just a man or just a woman was not sufficient. Both are needed to full capture the image God has embedded in us. Our creation as male and female is what Christopher West calls a “sacramental reality: a physical sign of something transcendent, spiritual, and even divine.” 

B.  Marriage between a man and a woman represents God’s nature. To quote the Keller’s at length again (and I am blending several paragraphs):

“There is a hint that the relationship between male and female is a reflection of the relationships within the Godhead itself – the Trinity. Although all people, men and women, are bearers of God’s image, resembling him as his children, reflecting his glory, and representing him as stewards over nature, it requires the unique union of male and female within the one flesh of marriage to reflect the relationship of life within the triune God. 

As Genesis says, male and female are “like-opposite” each other – both radically different and yet incomplete without each other. God’s plan for married couples involves two people of different sexes making the commitment and sacrifice that is involved in embracing the Other and performing different roles in the act of creation, which brings about deep unity because of the profound complementarity between the sexes. [This] tells us something of the relationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

 The “two becoming one”[11] is an echo, an earthly representation of the three-in-one nature of the triune God. We see in the Trinity, that the Son is not the Father, the Father is not the Holy Spirit, etc, yet all three even as they are different persons – they are the complementarian ‘other’ – the three become one essence. So in marriage, the husband is not the wife – they are the complementarian ‘other’ – and yet they, too, become one.

N.T Wright has noted, "If you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth."

This is the theological reason why the Bible never discusses marriage as the union between people of the same sex. Same-sex couples cannot be the “like-opposite” union of “otherness” that represent the triune image of a complementary and life-creating God.[ii] This is why, as a pastor, I cannot perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. It’s not a question of liking or disliking the people involved. It’s about being sure that if I am going to give a pastoral blessing to the marriage of two people, it must be a union that aligns with Scriptural authority.[iii]

2. Human Design Reveals That Marriage Is Uniquely Oriented As An Institution For A Particular Purpose.

Christians have traditionally pointed to some obvious facts about God’s creation to confirm the complementary union of men and women in marriage. The argument goes something like this. 

  • People are inherently incomplete with respect to one key biological function: making babies.
  • Only a man and a woman can form a union that is essentially oriented toward the uniquely complementarian purpose of conceiving children and raising them together.[iv]

And this brings us back to our statement of faith:

“We believe that God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female. Together they reflect the image and nature of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman as delineated in Scripture (Genesis 2:18-25; Matthew 19:5-6). It is intended to be a covenant by which they unite themselves for life in a single, exclusive union, ordered toward the well-being of the spouses and designed to be the environment for the procreation and upbringing of children.”

[1] RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy and Kathy Keller

The Mingling of Souls, Matt Chandler

Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, John Piper and Justin Taylor

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

The Thrill of the Chaste, Dawn Eden

Fill These Hearts: God, Sex and the Universal Longing, Christopher West

[2] “Confessions of a Sex-Starved Single” (todayschristianwoman.com)

   “ Single In Christ And A Sexual Being" (equip.org)

[3]  “The Single Person’s Good Desire for Sex” (desiringgod.org)

[4]  “Made…In Complementary Community” – Part 1  (clgonline.org)

[5]  “Erasing Shame: Finding Forgiveness For Sexual Sin” (boundless.org)

[6] “The general message hanging in the air for a lot of people raised in Christian homes was this: Your desires (especially your sexual desires) are bad, and they will only get you in trouble. So you need to repress, ignore, or otherwise annihilate them. But follow all of these rules and you’ll be a good, upstanding Christian citizen.” – Christpher West, Fill These Hearts

[7] “Loving Your Neighbor And Your Gender,” November 14, 2015

[8] SEX IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST

Martha Nussbaum, professor of philosophy at Brown University, has written that the ancients were no more concerned with people's gender preference than people today are with others' eating preferences: “Ancient categories of sexual experience differed considerably from our own... The central distinction in sexual morality was the distinction between active and passive roles. The gender of the object... is not in itself morally problematic. Boys and women are very often treated interchangeably as objects of [male] desire. What is socially important is to penetrate rather than to be penetrated. Sex is understood fundamentally not as interaction, but as a doing of some thing to someone...”

[9] For more on the imagery in Song of Solomon, “The Hunt” is a decent introduction to the language of Song of Solomon (http://www.christdeaf.org/bible/TheHunt.html.)  See also, “What’s The Difference Between Erotica And The Song Of Solomon?” (thegospelcoaltion.org)

[10] See the sermon in this pillars series on “Sin and Salvation” on our website. 

[11] “As Stan Grenz points out in his book Sexual Ethics, singles can also mirror Christ's love. In marriage, we're to be committed to only one person—;it's exclusive. But there's also an ever-expanding sense of God's love where he keeps reaching out, establishing relationships with more and more people. Singles can demonstrate expanding love by having nonexclusive relationships. In not having a covenant relationship with a spouse, they can have more relationships, which demonstrates a different aspect of the character of God.” – “Sex and The Single Christian,” Steve Tracy (christianitytoday.com)

[i] One does not need the Bible to see that waiting to have sex until marriage and limiting one’s sex life to that partner clearly provides a healthier sex life for both individuals and their family. For some introductory information, the following may be helpful:

  • The Health Benefits of Marriage,” Focus on the Family.
  • What Are The Advantages of Monogamy?” Tough Questions Answered
  • “A monogamous sexual partnership in formal marriage evidently produces the greatest satisfaction and pleasure.” (Social Organization of Sexuality)
  • A US News and World Report story from State Universtiy of New York and the University of Chicago noted that of all sexually active people, “....the people who reported being most physically pleased and emotionally satisfied were married couples... Physical and emotional satisfaction started to decline when people had more than one sexual partner.”

In addition, pornography – which not only fails to form covenants but celebrates sex devoid of anything remotely related to covenant – clearly undermines individuals and the community. For some introductory information, the following articles from Salvo Magazine (salvomag.com) may be helpful:

  • “Slave Master How Pornography Drugs & Changes Your Brain”
  • “Porn Is Not Free”
  • “Porn In The USA”
  • “The Porn Factor” “The Science of Pornography”             

________________________

[ii] Two things are biblically clear by the end of the New Testament era: 1) marriage is intended to be a permanent, faithful, sacrificially loving covenant between a husband and wife, and 2) the only proper context for sex is within the confines of that kind of marriage. Pornography, heterosexual promiscuity, adultery, and a homosexual lifestyle all take place outside of God’s design for sex. Homosexuality is a culturally hot topic right now, so I will respond to that one in particular.

We must remember that we are all sinner who are  recipients of God’s forgiveness and grace. If God forgives, heals and restores me and places me in church community, who am I to refuse to pass that on to others? Unfortunately, the church often drops the ball here. The church should be a place of refuge, hope, and godly formation for the disenfranchised, oppressed, wounded, and sinful.The goal for all Christians is to show love and compassion paired with a call to repentance and transformation into a new and better way of life (“I’m glad God saved and delivered me from my sins. He can do the same for you. Let’s walk through this together.”)  Repentance requires a commitment to be a different kind of person – not a perfect one, but one committed to ongoing, deeper discipleship in which all areas of life are surrendered at the foot of the cross – and that includes our sexual identity and practice. I recommend the following resources: 

________________________

[iii] Obviously, the state has the power to do otherwise. I think we will probably see an increasing trend in churches to separate civil ceremonies from church ceremonies, with the state sanctioning legal rights and the church celebrating biblical covenant. See “The Marriage Pledge” for more info. 

____________________

[iv] KIDS AND PARENTS

One does not need a Bible to note that a stable, low conflict, faithful marriage between the biological mother and father provides children with the statistically healthiest home. This clearly does not claim that other situations (such as adoption or single-parent homes) result in unhealthy kids, are necessarily unstable or are full of conflict. It merely claims there is a generally predictable situation which is optimal for children, and as such it ought to be uniquely acknowledged and promoted.

Conquering the Course of Life (1 Corinthians 7)

slalom.gif

In some ways, life is like a slalom course. There are sudden turns that come too fast, rough water, fatigue, sharp turns, wakes that can send you flying or flailing. Success feels fantastic, but failure hurts. 

So how do we successfully navigate the slalom course of life? Rough waters show up in many ways: the death of a loved one, sickness, employment changes, relational breakdowns. Our lives taken sudden turns when our children get in trouble, or our friends let us down. Fatigue sets in when our ministry is unappreciated or ineffective. Success feels fantastic, but failure hurts.

A common mistake is to use all our energy to change our circumstance. When we encounter rough waters and sharp turns, we look for a different job, a different car, a different town, a different husband or wife, a different church. If we are unhappy single, we look for a spouse. If we are unhappy married we look for a way out. We’re sure that if we can just change our circumstance our lives will change for the better.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul addresses people who are having trouble on the course of their life. While his message is aimed toward several particular groups, Paul has a common message for all of them: no matter the water, the weather, or the twists and turns of life,  pursue undistracted devotion to the Lord (v. 35). 

First, he addresses those who are unhappy with their relational status, and he begins with those who are married:

 “But because of immoralities let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband give his wife the affection owed her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does, and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control. “ (1 Corinthians 7:2-5)

    Paul is not saying sex is the only or most important reason for marriage. He is answering a specific questions Corinthians had about marriage at that time and in their circumstances. Considering the culture in which they lived, it’s no surprise they had some questions about sex.

As noted earlier in 1 Corinthians, some of the Christians thought it was okay to hire prostitutes, and now others were wondering if it really spiritual spouses should have sex at all. Paul says no to the former and yes to the latter, but he moves the subject beyond just sex – affection matters too. (For what it's worth, Paul may have been married at one time. He was an exemplary Jew (Philippians 3:4-6). Jews believed that an unmarried twenty-year-old man was sinning by not being married. Paul was likely a member of the Sanhedrin (as he “cast my vote” in Acts 26:10), and only married men could be members of the Sanhedrin). Basically Paul says (and I am, of course, paraphrasing):

“Here’s what you need to navigate the slalom course of marriage. Self-sacrifice is the rough water; responsibility the fatigue. Your body isn’t yours alone. It belongs to God first and your mate second. The entire relationship - including sex -  not just one person’s duty and the other one’s privilege. You need to meet each other’s sexual and emotional needs, and you need to hang in there even when you want to drop the rope and call it quits.

‘But he/she brings out the worst in me!’  Yep. That’s one way God reveals who you really are. Don’t change mates - change yourself by the grace of God. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, part of the “body” of Christ on earth. Like Christ, you are called to be a loving servant, blessing when cursed, forgiving, interceding, confronting in love, and sacrificing. Don’t serve with expectation of earning something in return; it will only lead to resentment. You are trying to please the Lord and your spouse, not get something from them.”

Next, Paul addresses those who are single:

“(vs. 7-9) I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, but I say to the unmarried and the widow that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn. (Vs 28) But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. (Vs 32-34) But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided."

If I may paraphrase Paul again, I believe he is saying something like this:

Here’s the reality. You are on the slalom course of the single life. There’s basically one thing you need to know in order to navigate that course, come rough waters or fatigue: Marriage is a challenge. It’s hard. Staying single will free you from the relational challenges of marriage and free you to serve God with undivided attention. Sexual temptation is the rough water; loneliness the fatigue. If God has given you the ability to stay the course, stay the course. The slalom is not necessarily easier on the other side of the lake.”

On the slalom course, you can’t change the course – but you can learn how to navigate in such a way that the challenges become the very things that bring you joy. Paul says in verse 7 that successfully navigating both marriage and singleness is a “gift,” and he uses the same word he uses in 1 Corinthians 12 to describe spiritual gifts that God gives believers. Some are able and willing to please God better while being single, others while being married. Paul summarizes his teaching on singleness and marriage with this line in verse 17: Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches."

If you read the entire chapter, you will see that Paul applied this principle even more broadly:

"Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave." (vs. 18-21)

That may seem like an odd list to include with marriage and singleness, but all of these "stations" in life were a big deal at the time. Marital status played a huge factor in social standing in Greek, Roman, and Hebrew culture; circumcision was such a contentious issue that the first church council in Acts had to deal with it (and there was a method to reverse a circumcisions); slaves were scorned by everyone.  Jewish men routinely thanked God for not making them a woman, a Gentile, or a slave.   

In the cultural context, Paul tells people that in the midst of their circumstance - no matter how dire - they were to live as a believer, not because their situation was perfect, but because God was present.  Meanwhile, Paul gives advice on how to make that circumstance better (or in the case of slavery, a hope that it will end). Husbands and wives, give affection and show submission to your spouse; Gentile Christians, don't feel obligated to get circumcised; Jewish Christians, don't feel the need to reverse a circumcision; slaves, Christ has made you as free as anyone else - and if there is a way to make your physical reality match your spiritual one, that's ideal. And while Paul does not address slave owners directly, surely there is an implication for them as well. 

The bottom line? Live devoted to God, no matter how dire the circumstances.

To Paul ,the most important thing was not changing circumstances (though he offers a path of hope). The most important things was changing our stance in the midst of our circumstance.

 - Based on the sermon notes of Scott Norris, 9/16/12

What Happens in Thessalonica Stays in Thessalonica

(Part One of a Three Part Series on Sex, Purity, and Justice) 

     One of the most popular ads right now promises us a world in which we can do some incredibly stupid and maybe even fun things in Vegas, and not have them effect us at all. Unfortunately, it's just not true. Expense tabs, debt, compromises of morality, memories, and hotel towels seem to find their way back home, even in the movies.

    As much as we may want this to be true, wanting something to be true doesn't actually make it so.  I'm sure sky diving instructors don't comfort nervous jumpers by saying, "Don't worry?  This event is totally separate from the rest of your life! What happens in the air stays in the air."  For that matter, ask employers if what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.

    What we do even in Vegas matters.  The Hangover was a raunchy movie, but even it had the decency to point out that what happened in Vegas had a ripple effect. Skydivers have to land; the words we post in social media are words we say in the real world, and they stay with us.

     We can’t segment our lives. Our experiences are all connected.  TV is episodic; life is not.  What happens in Vegas become one small story in the bigger story of my life, and that narrative does not stop.  Ever.  What happens in Vegas will stay with me the rest of my life.

    We can’t separate the physical part of us from the spiritual part of us, either.  I've talked to many people who have been determined to believe that “What happens on the outside of my body stays on the outside.”  Once again, this is not the way the world works.  What we do on the outside effects the inside.
    
­­_________________________________________________________________________
 
 2,000 years ago, Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica.  In the first several chapters he noted:
  • they were full of faith (they had turned from idols to the living God);
  • they loved each other and seemed to understand community well; 
  • they were enduring persecution well; 
  • their reputation had spread far and wide. 
   In spite of all these good things, there was a problem to address. Apparently, there were a number of people who were convinced that “What happens in Thessalonica stays in Thessalonica.”  
"As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living.  Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  This is the will (desire, purpose) of God: your sanctification  (purity): You should avoid sexual immorality." (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3)

     For Paul's readers, the word he chose for "living"would have invoked an image of walking about in an ordinary day. Paul starts this section by saying they are pleasing God (two thumbs up!) but there is more they need to know.  In this case, they needed to focus very specifically on an area that causing them to stumble:  sexual purity.

     The word translated as “sexual immorality” provides an umbrella under which a lot of sexual activity fits: promiscuity, adultery, prostitution, pornography… The list goes on.  Basically, their sex lives needed the purity of sanctification.

     At the time Paul wrote this, the Gentiles in Thessolonica lived in a culture saturated with distorted views of marriage, sex, and family. Historians recorded upper class Roman ladies identifying years not by chronological numbers, but by the names of their ever-changing husbands. One Greek writer noted: ”We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.”

     Paul was writing to a church with people who had this lifestyle embedded in them. They had to learn a new way of viewing sex.
_________________________________________________________________________
    “ The most crucial theological truth about sexuality is that God loves sex and evil hates it.  God made us sexual, and He glories in his plan for our union and joy.  Evil hates what God loves, and it has found that more harm can be done through sex then perhaps any other means.  Often the chief battleground for the human soul is the terrain of sexuality.”                                    - Dan Allender

_________________________________________________________________________

  Here in an important biblical truth:  sex is holy and sacred, and act of self-sacrifice, intimacy, commitment and trust.

    That's why Christians make such a big deal about it. Sex is not just another thing we do, like shopping.  Sex effects our souls. And because it's such a big deal, God has provided pretty clear instructions about how we are supposed to live in this area.

   First, he sets a boundary: sex is to be experienced only within marriage.  This may seem restrictive, but because of God's purposes for sex, that boundary is necessary.  Rivers need banks; cars need roads; stock markets need regulation; my blood needs veins and arteries.  In every area of life, we see how boundaries maximize the ability of things to flourish. Sex is no exception.
 
     Second, God intends sex to fulfill at least four key purposes: procreation, unity, personal formation, and pleasure.  While some of these can clearly be experienced out of marriage, understating how all four work together to fulfill God's purpose is important.

    Procreation: Sex brings babies.  This is not a secret. That fact that we can avoid the consequence of children does not negate that this is a key reason we have sex.  Children are a blessing, a gift from God. Not only do we ensure the continuation of humanity, but we have an opportunity to experience a glimpse of the kind of love God has toward us. God is our Father in a spiritual sense; how important is it, then, that earthly fathers embody that type of fatherhood God gives us - loving, committed, just, pure, holy?
     Unity: Sex is meant to seal bonds of trust, love and commitment.  That's one reason God sets marriage as a boundary line: during sex, we communicate with our bodies that we have made a covenant; we can now give each other everything, baring body in soul in mutual trust and self-sacrifice. It's no secret that sex within marriage might not fully fulfill this design.  Sex outside of marriage simply cannot.
     Personal formation: Sex refines us. Two very different people, with different levels of desire, different schedules, different libidos, different love languages, different personalities. different....everything.... must make this funny, embarrassing, awkward, intimate and beautiful act become good and meaningful for both people.  That's not necessarily easy. It will require patience and selflessness.  Within the safety of covenant, we have the freedom to explore sex without worrying that our marriage partner will leave because we don't do everything just right. Over time, we become better people as we learn to understand, appreciate, and whole-heartedly embrace our spouse completely.
     Pleasure:  Some may argue this is a very nice side effect, and it may well be simply a nice perk.  But if pleasure is one of the characteristics of life in eternity with God, I'm not sure why He wouldn't purposefully give us glimpses now.    

 “And ‘control your own vessel’ in a way that is holy and honorable, not overpowered by lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” (1 Thessalonians  4:4-5)

    "Control your own vessel" is not really bumper sticker material.  It's a phrase that seems archaic, but seeing how writers use it other places in the Bible can be helpful. Based on its placement elsewhere, "vessel" can be read two possible ways:
  • "Control yourself sexually in a way that is holy and honorable." (See a comparable example in 2 Corinthians 4:7)
  • "Relate to your spouse sexually in a way that is holy and honorable. (See a comparable example in 1 Peter 3:7)
   It's a brilliant word choice.  No one in the Thessalonican church could honestly read the letter, then look around the room and say, “The rest of you should really listen up!!!”  Married or single, there is a holy and honorable way to handle your sex drive.
    Then Paul makes an important distinction: those who know God are supposed to know the purpose of sex; those who do not know God don't have the same advantage.  Those who know God are supposed to know why sex matters; those who do not know God have fun but ultimately aimless sex, unhooked from deeper notions of design and purpose. "Just do it!" would have been a relevant slogan 2,000 years ago.
     Here's an analogy: If someone gave you a car and taught you to drive safely, but didn’t tell you why you should drive, would that be enough?  Sure, driving is fun; the GPS is really cool; the leather seats are nice; learning safe driving tips is helpful.  
    But at some point wouldn't you say, “What’s the point?  This is great as far as road trips go, but where am I going exactly?  My GPS shows me where I AM, but not where I’m going or where I should be - or why I'm even on this road heading to that place. I might be having a lot of fun going somewhere bad. Wait - is this Michigan Stadium?  Ahhhhh!”
  In Thessalonica they had nice, shiny cars, and they knew how to drive, but they didn’t know the purpose. They didn't know where they were going, or why.  
     Following our desires for sex is not necessarily wrong any more than having a car and driving somewhere is bad.  The vehicle and the road are not the problem; problems arise when we follow our God-given sexual desires in a way that the roads we take break God’s will and take us to the wrong destinations.  
     We can engage in sex just for fun, or just to ease loneliness, or just because we feel like it, or because we truly love someone.  We drive the car for a lot of reasons, and the journey is nice, but we separate the act from the purpose at our peril.  God has a purpose for everything we do.  What we do with our skin effects our soul. When we have sex (or do anything, really) something is happening to our character, priorities, view of pleasure, view of people, and relationship with God.
    What we do forms us into a people of increasing or decreasing holiness and honor.
    Paul phrases the verse in a negative sense: "They don't know God so they don't understand the purpose of sex."  There is an assumed message here that is far more positive: “You understand the purpose because you DO know God.”
   But how many Christians who claim to know God actually know the purpose of sex?

 “And that in this matter no one should exploit or violate a brother or sister.” Thessalonians 4:6) 
In Paul's time, Thessalonica was the hub of a lot of commerce.  The Thessalonians understood in economic terms what it meant to exploit or violate people:
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (a merchant who knows what ought to be done and constantly pushes the boundaries of the law)
  • Cheating and defrauding in trade and business (merchants who used weighted scales – taking more than they should at the expense of others)
  • Increasing or lessening the value and prices of goods by the buyer and seller (they would cheapen something valuable in order to profit at the expense of the seller)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they didn't understand - or didn't care about - the importance of commitment)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they could spot those easily manipulated and take what they wanted from them)
   To an audience that understood exploitation and fraud, Paul explains that sex outside of God’s design and purpose does the same thing.  The stakes are higher, though, because now they are trading in dignity, respect, honor, and people, not merely things. Like the merchants, they are: 
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (they know what kind of respect ought to be shown,  yet they constantly push the boundaries)
  • Cheating and defrauding (they take more than they should at the expense of the other person)
  • Lessening the value of sex (they cheapen purity, sex, intimacy and trust)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they you don’t understand the importance of covenant)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they spot those easily manipulated and take what they want from them)
     On the one hand, this is a depressing list that reveals a treatment of people that not only damages others but damages society as well.  On the other hand, treating people with honor and holiness brings about the opposite effect: a society in which both individuals and communities flourish as honor, dignity, and value are returned to one of the most intimate acts we can do.  How is this accomplished?
  • Enforcing the bounds of justice (we know what proper sexual boundaries are,  and we protect them.)
  • Helping others flourish (if the scales are going to tip on question of sex and purity, it will be in favor of purity.  The question is not "How far can I go?" but "How pure can I stay?")
  • Attaching the proper value to people and sex (increasing the value of sex and intimacy by treating it like the precious gift it is, and helping others guard their purity) 
  • Keeping and honoring covenants (understanding that every relationship trains people how to flourish or flounder in an eventual or existing covenant. This involves treating someone else’s future or present spouse like they want others to treat their future or present spouse.)
  • Protecting the weak and vulnerable (in a world where so many people are vulnerable in this area for a lot of different reasons, honorable people stand out because they protect those most in need of a hero). 
That the kind of world purity and self-control offer. 
_________________________________________________