Ephesians 5:3&4 “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.”
There is one thing I want to say at the outset which is a key to everything that follows and it is this, that God “satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.” They are the words of an Old Testament Christian in Psalm 107 and the 9th verse. The Lord satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness. Only God can do that, and the testimony of most of us here today is that we have found these words to be completely true in our own experience, some of us for more than a half a century. God has satisfied our longing souls and he has filled our hungry souls with his goodness. We are not frustrated Christian men and women. Some of us are widows; some of us are single; some of us are divorced; some of us are single parents. Our individual circumstances are very varied but we want to testify to every one of you that our God has satisfied our longing souls, and he has filled our hungry souls with his goodness, and if we will ever be tempted to leave him then it will have to be for another god who can do better than the Lord. We haven’t heard of such a god yet, though bombarded with other gods and philosophies day by day.
What is our attitude when we explain a passage of Scripture like this? A man who has thought much about marriage says that he tries to displays four attitudes whenever he talks about it;
i] Humility. We could read words like our text’s and scorn everyone who has fallen into sexual sin. We could spend an hour telling you exactly how to behave to members of the opposite sex suggesting this is the way we have done it, but once anyone has gone through the rites of passage and into marriage managing to make it survive for some years any pride he has in that fact is totally undermined and his regrets are enormous. Many of us are sad about the hurt and pain connected with relationships we’ve had with members of the opposite sex. I mean these very people whom you are sitting with now may seem to you to be paragons of virtue and make you feel a hypocrite, but they have regrets in this area. The preacher himself does not often speak about these things because he has been humbled. I want to say that this is not going to be a confrontational sermon, but neither is it going to be bland and harmless. There is a lot of bitterness, confusion and guilt about sex and marriage in Wales today and I am not going to add to it. But I am encouraged to speak on these words of the law of God because they can lead to forgiveness and healing. This is our assurance: “God satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.”
ii] Honesty. That follows from humility doesn’t it? If you have become a slave to what this passage talks about, immorality, any kind of impurity, greed, obscenity and so on, then I am not going to offer you half a dozen instant solutions to the mess which these sins have made of your life. This sermon is not an IKEA-type handbook on basic steps to assembling a great marriage. We sinners have an extraordinary capacity for doing the most illogical, stupid and wrong things and what we are going to do is establish the Christian attitude to sex and marriage, answer some of the objections, emphasize the marvelous mercy of God through Jesus Christ, and tell you of the empowering and indwelling of God that has made so many of us say, “God satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.”
iii] Helpfulness. There’s a book or two that can help. There always are. Some are written by Elisabeth Elliot, and others are written by Joshua Harris. I give them away and they can be obtained in the Book Shop, but the best help is coming along with a desire to know God better every Sunday. These words are not the only part of the Bible to talk about relationships. Scripture is very rich in all it says, and always, without exception, true and helpful. Jesus Christ is able to help you in this area of your life, not by removing joy from your life, but by showing you the best way, and giving you strength and peace. “God satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.”
iv] Hope. There is no shortage of cynicism about marriage. What funny men make funny jokes about marriage. Oscar Wilde said, “Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.” Cher said, “The problem with most women is that they get all excited about nothing and then marry him.” There are many, many such wisecracks, all rather sad, and I won’t weary you with any more. I believe in the Creator’s teaching about marriage. He knows us because he made us in his image and he loves us. So what he says in the Bible is the very best counsel, showing us where we have gone wrong and telling how things can be put right. “God satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.”
1. THE BIBLE’S TEACHING ABOUT SEX AND MARRIAGE.
The God who created the cosmos created man by a special action. He made us male and female, sexually different from one another, for two reasons, firstly, for the unique companionship that a husband (of one gender) and wife (of another gender) have in one other. They enrich one another as friends from these opposite perspectives. God designed mankind in this way. He is the one who made men and women and brought them together. God saw everything that he made and he said, “That is good,” but a solitary man relating to the animals was not good, and God did not say that man was good until he made woman. So one reason for the distinctiveness of man and woman was the difference of the two genders. The other reason was for the procreation of children.
So man and woman were made by God to complement one another. I don’t mean that they are to say nice things about one another, but that they complete one another. Only a woman can complete a man. Every man has to recognize that fact. A man is God’s appointed means for his wife to find her full identity, while a husband only finds the truest expression of his manhood in relation to his wife – not in relation to women in general. When you read of a man who is said to “love women”, then the Bible disdains that attitude as lust. A man loves his neighbour, and he does so sacrificially, “as himself.” But a man finds his fulfilment in his wife. He then cleaves to her and she cleaves to him. They shall be one flesh, one in mind, one in affection, in their convictions and in fulfilling their chief end; heirs together of the grace of life. That is the context for human sexuality to be expressed. Its meaning is found in the total self-giving of marriage.
Al Martin has written, “Someone has defined this term ‘one flesh’ as follows: ‘A total commitment to intimacy in all of life together, symbolized by the sexual union of one flesh.’ So intimate, indeed, is this new bond that the most intimate human tie which has existed prior to the establishment of this must be severed. Man shall leave father and mother, not ceasing to honour them – that is the abiding obligation of the fifth commandment – but in terms of provision, direction, consolation, comfort, and security, there must be a new beginning. Until the establishment of this relationship this young man or woman, finds security, direction, comfort, and provision within the circle of their parents’ home. Now, with marriage, this former bond is severed at a pivotal point and a new one is established, ‘A man shall leave father and mother and cleave to his wife.'”
As a man learns to ‘know’ his wife, and a woman to ‘know’ her husband so they get to know themselves. In cleaving to his wife the husband discovers something more of his own identity. In finding his ‘better half’ he finds himself. So it is with a wife, and so a husband and wife become increasingly one in body, and one in heart and mind. So here is the Christian teaching, of purity before marriage and faithfulness within it, one man loving one woman until God separates them by death. What would Wales be like if this marriage commitment to faithfulness were realized?
1. We wouldn’t have divorces, and that would get rid of a lot of headache and pain.
2. We wouldn’t have any broken families with children shuttling between parents, with all the confusion that brings.
3. We wouldn’t have the jealousy that often marks marriage these days, and that would make a lot of marriages a lot more pleasant.
4. Husbands and wives would develop their relationship to one another totally; they would learn to appreciate all the areas of their spouse’s personality.
5. Once the sexual element of human nature were confined to marriage exclusively, we wouldn’t have all the things in our society that tend to stimulate undifferentiated lust.
6. Once we would have some of these influences removed from our culture, our young people wouldn’t be stimulated along these lines from the day they enter puberty, and we would have less teenage sex and teenage pregnancy.
7. Our families would become stronger.
8. Our society would become more wholesome.
9. Our welfare costs would go down because tranquillity and stability in society make people more stable and productive.
10. Marriage would be a lot more beautiful than it often is now.
That sounds good to me. It sounds much better than the results of the promiscuity which we see surrounding us today. Some of you are not persuaded. Maybe you are thinking that an old book like the Bible can’t address the 21st century and the complexity of the roles of men and women. What shall we say to that?
i] First, many people who reject the Bible don’t know much about it. They dismiss it, but they haven’t studied it. They’ve simply accepted what others say about it. A widespread reading of the Bible, and a gathering to hear it explained week by week, can help us to see that it speaks to a wide range of human problems.
ii] Secondly, many people dismiss as ‘primitive’ the Bible’s explanation of human origins. They think in terms of the evolutionary view that humankind and culture is moving on to perfection. But let me remind you of a much publicized incident in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, a few days ago when a group of children tried to kill a five year old boy. We are far from perfection aren’t we? The Times on Friday said, “That a pack of children aged 11 and 12 could nearly strangle a five-year-old is, sadly, not surprising. Humans are the cruelest species on earth and children have always had the potential for viciousness, even children from ‘good’ homes.” If the human race is simply another animal species then there is little shocking in the incident. But most people considered this news report to be almost unbelievable because we are not animals; in fact we work sacrificially to rescue animals – like the school of 160 whales which had got stranded on a beach near Perth the same day as children were trying to hang a little boy. Who else but men and women would act like that expending such energy and expense not for food but to keep some mammals alive and let them free? We are made by God and like God; that is why we behave in such a way. The Bible is describing the path of our fallen human race from perfection, not toward perfection.
iii] Thirdly, there is this theory that the Bible is sexist, that it was written from a male point of view. They say that it is a massive put-down of women, and its influence must be removed if there is to be any progress in the role of men and women in society. But a man named Donald G. Bloesch wrote a book twenty years ago called “Is the Bible Sexist?” answering that criticism very carefully. In the Bible man depends upon woman, and man is fulfilled in fellowship with her.
Actually, the Bible contains many portraits of women who had significant roles in God’s work in the world. Abigail, the intelligent wife of a foolish man, who after her husband’s death became the wife of David, Israel’s king; Hannah, a woman of faith who prayed for a son and dedicated him to the Lord; Deborah, the courageous prophetess and judge of Israel who inspired Barak to lead the nation’s armies to victory; Esther, the queen who delivered God’s people from certain death; Ruth, the faithful woman who became an ancestor of Jesus Christ – these are just a few from the Old Testament who are presented as wise, strong, decisive women. The New Testament abounds with examples also. Just think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the women who were part of Jesus’ inner circle. Jesus himself went out of his way to elevate women. Women also appear in the New Testament as important members of the early church.
The Bible most assuredly does not elevate men at the expense of women; in fact, it does not downgrade women in any way. Check it out and see for yourself. To declare that the Bible keeps women in bondage, then, is irresponsible. The Bible does no such thing. It shows men and women in partnership, together serving the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible gives to both men and women a supremely worthy place and identity. So Scripture is worth taking with all the seriousness you can muster, especially its teaching on sex and marriage.
2. WHEN THE BIBLE IS IGNORED IMPURITY REPLACES HOLY MARRIAGE.
Why else does Paul have to tell church members these things – “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (vv.3&4)? Ephesus was a pagan sea port dominated by the Temple of Diana, and the influence of the hundreds of the Temple’s priestesses who worked there pervaded all of city life. Promiscuity was everywhere, and lust, in contrast to love, is always exploitative, always selfish. It desecrates sex because it divorces the physical act from the context of love. It involves the violation of the personality. It treats another human being not as an end but as a means, a means for the gratification of fleeting lust.
In Ephesus the experience of love had been made synonymous with the act of copulation. So Paul in the previous verse exhorts the church to live a life of love and then immediately he explains what he doesn’t mean by that – in the words of our text – not sexual immorality and impurity and so on. You are not animals; you are made in God’s image and likeness. That is why the attempted murder of a little boy by children in Dewsbury was considered shocking by everyone. Life at an animal level contradicts the destiny which God intended for man. We can refuse to retaliate, and refuse to copulate, and not gorge ourselves on food and drink until we are bloated and drunk. We are able to refrain, and deny ourselves for those we love. We are not naked apes. We can consider the sexual act before performing it, and we can think of the consequences of our actions, of procreation, and children, and family life, and bringing up children who are the fruit of our loins in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We don’t judge it to be an instinct which it is impossible for two people to resist; we don’t think of it as some recreational activity or in terms of that horrible phrase, ‘safe sex.’ We know that sin has invaded the sanctum of sex and perverted the gift of God, something he intends for the delight of a husband and a wife. It has become an instrument of self-indulgence, and our civilization is utterly obsessed with it.
C. S. Lewis once made some pertinent observations about this. He wrote: “You can get a large audience together for a striptease act – that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, wouldn’t you think that in that country something had gone wrong with its appetite for food? Now, wouldn’t any one who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?”
Then Lewis proceeds to demolish the specious arguments which are advanced to explain, and thereby to extenuate, the state of our sexual morality.
i] Some say that sex is a mess because it has been hushed up (“But for the last twenty years it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess.”);
ii] that sex is nothing to be ashamed of (“There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food, and dribbling, and smacking their lips.”);
iii] that sex is ‘natural’ and ‘normal,’ and that those who repress their desires are perverse and abnormal (“Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness . . . Now this association is a lie . . . Surrendering to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humour, and frankness.”); and finally,
iv] the convenient lie that sex ‘repression’ is dangerous and that Christian chastity is impossible. Such claims and assertions, so confidently made by the defenders of behaviorist psychology, are not only false but wicked. That is why a passage like our text is so derided today.
Paul is concerned about the way people talked about sex then, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place” (v.4). C. S. Lewis is quite fascinating on this theme. He points out that practically the whole of the Christian faith can be deduced from a few facts, one of which is that men make coarse jokes. That is proof of our fallenness. The natural man has a compulsive interest in obscenity. Lewis writes, “The coarse joke proclaims that we have here an animal which finds its own animality either objectionable or funny . . . It is very difficult to imagine such a state of affairs as original, that is, to suppose a creature from the very first was half shocked and half tickled to death at the mere fact of being the creature it is. I don’t perceive that dogs see anything funny about being dogs: I suspect that angels see nothing funny about being angels.” But this is precisely man’s predicament: he finds his sexuality at one and the same time embarrassing and laughable. His jokes are a smoke screen behind which he seeks to hide his feeling of self-consciousness and his sense of shame. He doesn’t know the Bible’s teaching on sex and marriage. He does not know how to control his desires and longings. He is ignorant of the God who “satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.”
3. THE MEANS OF DELIVERANCE FROM SUCH ATTITUDES.
Two things need to be said. The first is found in the last words of our text, “but rather thanksgiving” (v.4). Don’t be characterized by all those sad and slimy attitudes to sex and marriage but be characterized by thanksgiving. Thank God for designing marriage, and putting the solitary in families, making men and women different. Be thankful that this is how it is. Imagine if we were made in the curious way many animals and insects are made. How wonderfully God has made us. What blessings come from one man and one woman living together in a home and raising together the children God gives them. Worship God for this. When your marriage has a tough time and there are arguments then fill your heart with thankfulness for the blessings of love between you. Gratitude to one another and to God is the first antidote to sexual obsession, and embarrassment, and foolishness and coarse joking.
The second is for me to remind you of how Jesus Christ can help you in your relationships. There was one particular man who lived centuries ago who had got enslaved to the lusts of the flesh. He believed in God, but he enjoyed sensual pleasures, and sometimes, even when he knew he was wrong and God was convicting him of his sin, he would speak to God and say, “Later, later. Leave me a little while. Not yet . . . I enjoy my sin too much to leave it now.” That was St. Augustine. Some of you know about him. He was converted by more than the commandment of God. He was converted once as he sat and walked in his garden, and he heard children chanting the phrase, “Take, Read,” over and over again. Maybe they were skipping, and he went into his house and picked up a Bible and he read the 13th chapter of the book of Romans. These words changed his life: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (vv. 13, 14). Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision to gratify the desires of the flesh. Those are the alternatives facing men and women today. The God who not only gives us the command, “do not commit adultery,” is the one who also has given us his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he invites us to clothe ourselves with Jesus. The cure is “putting on Jesus.”
Now, this is Biblical language, and we don’t always understand it right away. To “put on Jesus” is a strange phrase. Obviously, it is related to what we talk about when we talk about putting on an item of clothing. We wonder how this can be applied in the case of Jesus Christ. It can be applied to Christ, because he lived, died, and rose again so that he could have a relationship with his people which can be described in terms of “putting him on” as one might put on an item of clothing. He will cover his people. He will cover for them. We say to a colleague that we have to go to the dentist, “Can you cover for me?” In other words, can you take my place and do my duties, performing my responsibilities. The Lord Jesus covers for us before God. He answers to God on our behalf. We clothe ourselves in him. He will be our constant companion and whenever there is temptation to commit adultery, or do something that weakens marriage, he will be there, and he will enable the person tempted to say, “How can I do this great evil and sin against my God?”
If you want to resist the temptations to commit adultery, you must be thankful for the husband or wife God has given to you, but you must also believe in Jesus. Does this sound too simple? I am not describing something simple. I am describing a movement of faith that will involve every element of your personality; and you will need the power of Christ’s Spirit even to believe. Believe in Christ, humble yourself before Him. Confess that in yourself you are helpless in the face of the corrupting influences of our world. Plead for Jesus’ mercies. Ask him to apply to your sin the righteousness he earned on Calvary’s cross. Believe on him that way, and then know that Jesus will come into your life with his presence. You can be united with him. He died so that he could send his Holy Spirit into the lives of all those who believe in him. His Holy Spirit is what we need: we need the presence of the living, ruling Christ, actualized by his Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables us to resist the power of sin in our environment.
Don’t believe adultery is enjoyable; don’t believe it is fun. Don’t believe it is funny, either. Human beings who dishonour marriage dishonour themselves. They pay. Oh, let me tell you they pay. They pay for their adultery in the burned out emotions that accompany promiscuity. They pay for it in an inability to enjoy the fullness of tender, compassionate human relationships. They destroy themselves. They destroy those near them, and as more and more people become more and more adulterous, society is destroyed.
An American film star has arrived in the country promoting her biography. I had heard that she had begun to attend a little Baptist church during the past few years through the testimony of her chauffeur, and I was interested to know if this might have affected her and if she would raise this subject, but in the interviews none of that life has been referred to. So I’m not getting too excited about her contact with Christianity (maybe she is a baby Christian but maybe she isn’t, who knows? I’ll check out her bio. in the local bookshop), but you should take a look at yourself. How can you be cured of your adultery? How can your head and heart and soul be cleansed of those lusts that are corrupting you and making you less and less fit to be a good marriage partner? What about you? What about your marriage? What about what you are doing to your marriage? How can you be cured?
Living in our kind of world, there is only one hope for us, only one cure. We must believe in Jesus and lean on Him. Only those who have the Spirit of the living Christ are safe. “God satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.”
The Lord Jesus has arranged to have me tell you this today, men and women, and I have a feeling you know why.
5th June 2005 GEOFF THOMAS