Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – draw us to yourself. Make us hunger and thirst for you word and fill us with your sweet presence. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Exodus, chapter 20. Exodus, chapter 20. Exodus is the second book in the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Exodus 20 takes place after the LORD has rescued his people from 400 years of slavery in Egypt and has led them up to Mount Sinai. We have been listening to these words the LORD said on the mountain, known as the Ten Commandments. You said them just a few moment ago. This morning, we will be focusing our attention on verse 14, the seventh commandment. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
You shall not commit adultery.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
On Tuesday, Olga and the kids came to visit me at church. They stayed and played for the morning. I got them into the nursery and the first thing I did was close all the doors. I closed the door to the stairs so they couldn’t wander upstairs. I closed another door so they could not go running through the fellowship hall. I closed the door to the kitchen and to the sanctuary. I told them that they could play as long as they played in the nursery or hallway. Those were the boundaries and as long as they played within it, they were fine.
Is this what God is doing in teaching us about sex and marriage? We just want to play, but God is running around shutting doors, confining us and ruining our fun. Sometimes the church has given that impression. We have, at times, become obsessed with boundaries without ever explaining why. I remember going to church camp and being told about not ‘making purple’ as they called it. Boys were blue, girls were pink, when they touch, it makes purple. Simple rule: Don’t make purple. I remember being told to ‘save room for Jesus’ in my relationships, which was both spiritual advice and also a way of telling me not to sit too close to a girl on the couch. Some of you have heard of the so-called “Billy Graham rule,” where an man and woman who are not married to each other should never be alone in a room together. Some have made a large difference between courtship and dating. There is a whole cottage industry of Christian books to help us understand where the lines are in all our relationships and ‘how far is too far?’ And those of us who are single, widowed, divorced, or struggle with our sexuality often feel left out of the conversation, as somehow less because we are not married with children.
Some of this advice is good and some of it is goofy, but what most of it often lacks is an explanation why. When we are not clear on why, all that Scripture teaches easily becomes distorted. What quickly gets lost in talk of boundaries is the sense of why any of this matters. This leads some to fearfully keep these, at times biblical and at times extra-biblical, boundaries out of fear. It leads others to abandon Christian moral teaching on sex and marriage altogether as outdated and arbitrary.
So is God just running around closing doors, trying to ruin our fun? Is the Bible’s teaching about sexuality – that sex is a gift from God that can only be rightly enjoyed in the context of a marriage between one man and one woman – is this simply restrictive, oppressive, or even worse, completely arbitrary?
The short answer is no. But we are going to want to unpack that a little bit this morning. We will talk about boundaries. You shall not commit adultery is a command about a boundary that should not be crossed. But first, we need to get clear on the why. What is sex for? What is marriage for? Once these become clear, the boundaries that God sets, including here in the seventh commandment, begin to make sense.
So let’s take a step back. From the opening of the book of Genesis to the closing of the book of Revelation, the Bible paints a picture of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Adam and Eve in the garden in Genesis 1-2, Christ and the Church at the marriage supper of the lamb in the new heavens and the new earth. Most of the marriages in between are some type of mess, but this is the vision God has for marriage. There is a lot that can and should be said about the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, but in our brief time together, I want to offer what I believe is the central reason for the shape of Christian marriage.
Marriage is a reflection of our covenant relationship with God. When God enters into relationship with his people, it takes the form of a covenant, that is, a relationship based upon vows, promises, and loyalty. Consistently in the Bible, this relationship between God and his people is compared with a marriage. In the prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, God talks about he married Israel on Mount Sinai and how their forty years in the wilderness was like a honeymoon and compares Israel’s unfaithfulness to spiritual adultery (Ezek 16; Is 54, 62; Jer 2-5). This gets really personal when God calls on the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute, Gomer, have children with her, and then take her back after she runs off with other men. God calls Hosea to do this and then says that Israel has done what Gomer did and the LORD has been like Hosea. A close study of the structure of Israel’s meeting with the LORD on Mount Sinai shows deep parallels to a marriage ceremony, with the Ten Commandments being Israel’s wedding vows, which include the command to forsake all other gods. Song of Songs speaks in intimate detail about the love between a man and a woman, which the vast majority of Jewish and Christian history have understood as being about God’s relationship with his people. At the end of all things, Revelation pictures the new heavens and new earth as the consummation of Christ’s marriage to the church.
Why does marriage matter? Because it’s shape is related to the shape of God’s relationship with his people.
Marriage is a reflection of our covenant relationship with God. This is throughout the Bible, but perhaps most clear in Ephesians chapter 5, verses 21 to 33.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
There is a lot that we could unpack in Ephesians 5, but notice just how many parallels are drawn between the relationship between husband and wife and between Christ and the church. Headship, submission, love, sacrifice, union – all of these parts of human marriage image our relationship with God. It is not that human marriage came first and God though this was a good analogy, but that human marriage in some way is designed to image the relationship we have with God. Marriage is a reflection of our covenant relationship with God. God has entered into a relationship with his people characterized by sure promises, steadfast selfless love, union, joy, loyalty, exclusivity. When we are called to enter into marriage relationships, they should have the same characteristics. Even sex, as a good gift from God, images the union between Christ and the church, Christ and the believer. This is why the sexual detail in Song of Songs is so vivid.
So, is God simply walking around closing doors, ruining our fun? Is the shape of marriage as between one man and one woman just arbitrary or a relic of a different culture? No. Instead, the shape of marriage images the shape of our relationship with God. God is the groom and his people are the bride. In some senses, Christians are all betrothed to God, whether married, widowed, divorced, or single, and we are all awaiting the wedding date at Christ’s return. We should be far more excited for Christ to come back than we ever would be for a wedding day.
Human marriage is exclusive because our relationship with God is exclusive. The first commandment to have no other gods but the LORD runs directly parallel with the commandment to have no other loves than your spouse. This runs contrary to polygamy, open marriages, etc. The command to love the LORD with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength runs parallel to the command to love our spouse. Christ give himself up for the church runs parallel to the call for husbands to give themselves up for their wives. Christ and his church, God and his people, are not the same, they are different, which is one of the reasons for the commands against incest and same-sex relationships. Christ and his church were also made for each other, to be in union with one another, which runs parallel to the commands against things such as bestiality. The relationship between God and his people goes from one generation to the next, which runs parallel to God’s design for marriage to be a fruitful union with the possibility of children, even if that gift is not given. Also, there will be no marriages in heaven precisely because what marriage points to – our relationship with Christ – will be fully consummated and the sign will no longer be needed. God sets boundaries on who, when, and how when it comes to the marriage bond because human marriage images the covenantal relationship we have with God.
Once the center is in place, the boundaries begin to make sense. The shape of marriage images the shape of our relationship with God. Marriage is a reflection of our covenant relationship with God. Taken away from the center, the boundaries can seem odd, repressive, or arbitrary. Connected with the center, they start to fall into place.
However, we still need boundaries. It is not accident that God does not simply say, “Love your spouse,” but You shall not commit adultery. As C.S. Lewis put it, “No relationship has a natural tendency to go right.’ No one coasts into a good marriage, just as no one coasts into deep, fulfilling friendships and no one coasts into deep union with Christ. Left on our own, without intention, prayer, and effort, we destroy far more than we build. We often need these boundaries because when we break them, there is damage.
So let’s look a bit more at the seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery. Adultery is sex outside of the bonds of marriage (before, during, or after), particularly when one of both parties is already married. Adultery is a violation of the vows and covenants made in marriage and is a distortion of the gift of sexuality. That is my more technical definition, but here is my shorter one: Adultery is trying to get the pleasure of marriage without the responsibility of it. I’ll say that again: Adultery is trying to get the pleasure of marriage with the responsibility of it.
When someone is married and has sex with someone else they are not married to, they are seeking the pleasure of sex, of intimacy, of whatever other benefits they find there, without the responsibility and commitment that comes with marriage. The damage and fallout is real. Adultery breaks our relationship with God, with our body, with our partner in adultery, our spouse, our partner’s spouse, and even our relationship with ourselves. Martin Luther even called it a form of murder because it destroys the good relationships God has given us.
These boundaries are good – you shall not commit adultery – because the good gift of sex rages outside of where God intends, it burns like a fire and consumes. Here is the gut punch: Jesus tells us that even if we are outwardly pure, we cannot stand before Christ’s demand for purity:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Adultery is a matter of the heart long before it is an act of the body. Lust is adultery without opportunity. Can anyone say there eyes have always been pure? Can anyone say their heart has always been clean? If human marriage images God’s relationship with his people, such that there are deep parallels between the call to have no other gods and this command to have no other lovers, and if Jesus is right that it is not just what we do with our bodies but what lies in our hearts, then where does that leave any of us? All we not all adulterers?
Where does that leave those of us who have broken our marriages? Where does that leave those of us whose marriages are intact, but pornography burns? Where does that leave the widow, the single person, who has no marriage to break, but who still finds themselves longing? Where does that leave all of us no matter what our relationship status on Facebook?
Where does that leave us who have broken not just relationships with others, but with God? After detailing how Israel has wandered away and broken her marriage vows to the LORD, the prophet Hosea is given these words by the LORD:
“Therefore I am now going to allure her [that is, Israel];
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
“In that day,” declares the Lord,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
no longer will their names be invoked.
In that day I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
so that all may lie down in safety.
I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.
“In that day I will respond,”
declares the Lord—
“I will respond to the skies,
and they will respond to the earth;
and the earth will respond to the grain,
the new wine and the olive oil,
and they will respond to Jezreel.
I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;
and they will say, ‘You are my God.’
We have seen this morning that the center of marriage is how human marriage images our covenantal relationship with God. We have also seen how good boundaries can be, including You shall not commit adultery, especially because of our sinful tendency is to break and destroy what it a good gift from God. We also saw how Jesus intensifies the commandment so as to reveal our hearts and how each of us has broken the covenant. However, the good news is what we see here in Hosea. When Israel, when the church, when we destroy and break, when we cross boundaries and the fires rage and consume, God does not abandon us. Instead, he calls us to himself. He call the married, the child, the single, the widow, the struggling, the addicted, all of us to come and enter into relationship with him. Boundaries are important, but they are important because they point us to the center – Jesus Christ. It is Christ who is the hope and joy of our hearts and it is he alone who can wash us, make us clean, and who will make us his bride.
I asked at the beginning whether the Bible’s teaching on sex and marriage was just running around closing door, killing all the fun. I don’t think so. Instead, I want to leave you with a different image: a fire. When a fire is in the fireplace, it gives warmth, light, heat, and can be the center of the home, drawing people in. It is good. So too with marriage and sexuality. When placed in the hearth, when stoked within the context it was made for, it is good and brings blessing to others. However, when a fire gets out of the hearth, it burns and destroys. So too with marriage and sexuality. May the fire of sexuality burn brightly in the hearth of marriage.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.