An "Adult" Topic

Original Date: 
Sunday, October 23, 2016

Exodus 20:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 The Ten Commandments: An “Adult” Topic

Today’s sermon is about the seventh commandment. This is the one that says: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Now, I will admit, when I was a child, I did not know what this meant. I assumed it meant acting like a grown up when you weren’t. You know: “adult”ery. Pretending to be older than you are.
That’s not what it means. Though sometimes we think that what is in mind here is an “adult” way of behaving. Sometimes we think that when we are fully mature, then this is an area where we can make “adult” decisions and God should really keep His nose out of it.

But, as you can see in Exodus 20:14, adultery is something God cares about and prohibits in the strongest possible terms.

Adultery, then, is taking what is reserved for marriage and participating in it outside of marriage. In the strictest definition of the word, it means breaking the covenant of marriage by sharing intimacy with someone who is not your spouse. And God cares deeply about that.

I should say: this IS an adult topic. I’m going to be talking about sex. I’ll probably say the word “sex” quite a few times in this sermon. But I am mindful that we have young kids in the audience, and I’m going to be careful about the way I talk. My own 9 year old daughter is here, and I’m not going to say anything I am uncomfortable with her hearing.

At the same time, we can’t skip past this. Sex is part of life, and as such, it is something God takes an interest in. As one preacher has said, “Either God is God of the bedroom, or He’s not God at all.”

So why does adultery make God’s top ten list? Well, it’s not because sex is bad. But rather, because sex is designed to be such a powerful force for good.

Sex is like superglue. Physical intimacy seals the bond of matrimony. As New York City Pastor Tim Keller says, it is the “covenant cement” that helps hold a marriage secure. When God introduced the idea of marriage with Adam and Eve, He declared that they were now “one flesh.” (Gen.2:24) The physical union is symbolic of the spiritual, emotional and societal union that makes marriage one of the fundamental building blocks of humanity. Sex is a good thing that represents the total love commitment between a husband and wife.

But when sexual intimacy takes place outside of marriage, it’s like squeezing the superglue bottle in the wrong places. It makes an awful mess. Philip Ryken writes:

The wrong things get joined together, and getting them unstuck again tears at the soul. This is why adultery is forbidden. It is because sex is a great force for good, but only when it is used to join one man and one woman for life. (Exodus, p. 630-631)

Another analogy I’ve gotten from my friend Matt—and one which I’ve used before—is that sex is like fire. Fire is a very good thing. It warms us and gives us light. But fire is dangerous if it is used in the wrong place. Outside the protective perimeter of a fireplace, fire can be destructive and even deadly.

Sex is also a very good thing. Wonderful and beneficial to us. But it is dangerous and destructive when used in the wrong place, so God has lovingly placed barriers around sex so that it will accomplish what God intends. And that barrier is marriage.

As Matt likes to say: sex is for marriage like fire is for the fireplace.

Now, some of you may be looking for loopholes. The commandment is about adultery, and adultery is cheating on your spouse. It is breaking your marriage vows. So, maybe the way to avoid breaking this commandment is to never get married. Then you can get intimate with other unmarried people and never worry about committing adultery, right?

Well, not really. To think that way is to ignore what Bible commentators call the “rule of categories.” That is to say, in the Ten Commandments God often names the worst expression in a category of sins, but by extension rules out all other sins in that category. We saw this last week in the sixth commandment. God says “you shall not murder;”which is certainly a bad, if extreme sin. But we found out God has in mind all manner of anger or contempt towards others. Jesus took “you shall not murder” and told us that murder starts in the heart.

Well, the same thing happens here. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

The commandment against adultery isn’t just for married people; and it’s not just about physically crossing the line with another person’s spouse. It’s about how we think about sexual activity and engage in it in all its forms.

I’ll put it like this: the commandment against adultery is a call for sexual purity. It is God’s will that we should be pure when it comes to sexuality.

So, to get God’s perspective on purity, I’d like us to focus in on one passage of scripture this morning. I’d like to invite you to turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8. This is a New Testament understanding of what the seventh commandment calls us to:

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. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.8 Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

We’re going to tackle the text by asking a series of 3 questions:
1) What is sexual impurity?
2) Why should we be sexually pure?
3) And, finally, what should we do?

I. First, what is sexual impurity?

Paul writes, in verse 3:

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality.

The phrase “sexual immorality” translates the single Greek word “porneia.” Literally, Paul says that we should “avoid porneia.”

Now, you can probably recognize the root of the English word “pornography” there. I looked this Greek word up in a theological dictionary and found it defined as: “unchastity, harlotry, prostitution, fornication.” The dictionary said that in classical Greek the word described ‘various extra-marital sexual modes of behavior insofar as they deviate from accepted social and religious norms.” Then it gave some examples: “homosexuality, promiscuity, paedophilia, and especially prostitution.” More specifically, the dictionary said that whenever Paul used the word, and he used it about 21 times in his Biblical writings, he had in mind “any kind of illegitimate sexual intercourse.” (NIDNTT, Vol. 1, pgs. 497-501)

In other words, porneia is building a fire outside of the fireplace. It’s any sexual activity that takes place outside of the context of marriage. That means adultery, but also includes unmarried sex, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and so on. And Paul says we should avoid it. He says it is God’s will for us to stay away. He says, in essence, that if you are thinking about engaging in sexual activity, then you should look at the person you are thinking about doing so with and ask yourself: “Is this person my spouse?” and if the answer is “No”, then don’t do it.

But that’s not all. Paul is not only concerned about sexual activity; he’s concerned about sexual thoughts as well. In verse 5, he warns us away from the “passionate lust” of the heathen.
Lust is the stuff that goes on in our heads. Flipping through a pornographic magazine, visiting X-rated websites, carelessly daydreaming about a co-worker or classmate—that’s lust. And Paul’s telling us to avoid that too. Even if lust hasn’t led to involvement with another person, the Bible tells us to knock it off. This is what Jesus was talking about when He said that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

And so, I’m using the catch-all phrase “sexual impurity” to capture both things Paul is talking about here: sexual immorality and lust.

2 Important Points
Now, before we go on to the other questions, there are a couple of things I want to point out from this passage which run counter to popular sentiment regarding sexuality today. A couple of important Biblical perspectives on sexual impurity:

1) For one thing, the Bible views our sexuality as something that we can control.

Look at verse 4:

4each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable.

There is some question as to how this verse should be translated, and I’ll come back to it a bit later. But no matter how it is translated, this point stays the same. Sexuality is something we can learn to control. We are not helpless when it comes to sexual desire.

This runs so counter to popular sentiment. Again and again in debates on teen-age sex education we hear that they’re filled with hormones, they can’t help it; they’re going to have sex. The current thinking on homosexuality is that it is an inborn condition, and since God made them that way, they have to exercise their sexuality in that way. It’s natural, we hear. It’s biological. It’s a drive, just like the drive for food or sleep.

Do you get how insulting that is? If you subscribe to that way of thinking, then you are making humans out to be no different from animals. You’re saying that your teen-age son or daughter can no more control themselves than your dog can. It’s biology, and we are helpless to control or direct our sex drives.

The Bible doesn’t buy that. We are not victims of biology. We are created in the image of God, and part of that creation includes a moral conscience.

Hormones are strong, yes. Our sex drive is potent. Temptations to lust are all around us and they are powerful. But we can exercise control. “I couldn’t help myself,” just doesn’t fly. We can learn to control our sexuality.

2) For another thing, the Bible views sexual impurity as something that harms others.

Look at verse 6:

6 …in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.

Sexual sin makes a victim out of somebody. When we don’t control our bodies in the matter of sex we harm and do wrong to others.

Again, this is something that flies in the face of popular opinion. We hear so much about “consenting adults” and “privacy” that we’re led to believe that our personal sexual activities have no impact on those around us.

But the Bible says that is patently untrue. Lust dishonors people by reducing them to objects—the girl you are fantasizing about isn’t really a person, she’s just an object for your sexual fulfillment. If you aren’t married, but you are having sex, then you are taking something away from the person your partner will eventually marry. If you are married, and you’re having sex with someone who isn’t your spouse, then I don’t need to say anything about the hurt you are causing.

There are all kinds of social costs to sexual immorality as well: the increase of single-parent households and the attendant burden that places on the public dole; venereal diseases like syphilis, gonorrhea, AIDS and the increased risk of cervical cancer; abortion; and more.

And consider pornography. The argument might be made that pornography is victimless. It’s something viewed through the distance of the internet. Who’s getting hurt? But think about what we hear about human trafficking and debt slavery. Do you really believe that every woman involved in pornography got into it by choice? And do you really believe that those who produce pornography treat the men and women in those videos fairly? Every time you click on one of those sites you are supporting an industry that objectifies and dehumanizes women. To say nothing to the damage pornography does in the way you treat those around you, especially your spouse.

Sexual immorality is not a private matter. It wrongs others. It takes advantage of them. The Bible will not allow us to dismiss it as a matter of personal preference.

So, again, our first question is: What is sexual impurity? And the answer of this passage is: Sexual impurity is illegitimate sexual activity and unguarded sexual thoughts which we can learn to control, but when we don’t, it is behavior that not only hurts us, but others as well.

Sexual impurity is building a fire outside of the fireplace. It’s squeezing the superglue bottle in the wrong place.

The Lord Will Punish
II. The second question, then, is: Why should we be sexually pure? Why does the Bible tell us to avoid sexual immorality? It’s a question with two answers:

The first answer is a negative one. That is, the Bible tells us to avoid sexual immorality because sexual immorality is bad for us.

Think of the fire analogy. If someone were to ask you why they shouldn’t start a fire in the middle of the living room, you’d say: “Because it is dangerous. Someone might get hurt. You might die.”

In the same way, the Bible says that you should not engage in sexual activity outside the context of marriage because it is dangerous. Someone might get hurt. You might die.

We’ve already talked about the harm that you bring to others, but note here the serious harm you do to yourself. Verse 6:

The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before.

And then, again, verse 8:

8 Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

This is serious business. God says He will punish men for their sexual sins. He says that if you reject what the Bible has to say about sex, then it’s not like you’re rejecting Paul or rejecting Moses, you’re rejecting God. You’re saying you don’t want anything to do with God. Much worse than the risk of a social disease, Paul is saying here that if you don’t fight the temptation to sexual immorality—if you don’t fight lust—you’re going to Hell.

That sounds harsh, but it is written right here in the Bible. “The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins.” Building a fire outside of the fireplace is dangerous. So is sex outside the covenant of marriage.

Now, I can hear the objection: “What about grace? I thought we were saved by grace. That there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make Him love us less. I believe in Jesus, doesn’t He save me from my sexual sins?”

So He does. But you have to understand, we cannot disconnect salvation from real life. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus offers freedom from sin—victory over sin—not just tolerance of it. Just because we avoid sexual immorality doesn’t mean we’re destined for heaven, and just because we stumble with sexual sin isn’t going to keep us out. But the grace of Jesus, if it is real in our life, is going to lead us to fight

It is right to say that we are saved by grace. More specifically, we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). And that means we lay hold of our salvation by fighting the good fight of faith (1 Tim. 6:12). And how do we fight the good fight of faith? By fighting sin. By trusting—believing, “faith”ing—that God’s will for us is better than the base inclinations of our flesh.

Let me put it to you this way: A person can say: “I believe in Jesus. I believe He died for me. I’ve put my trust in Him.” But then, if that same person stays up till 3 in the morning visiting the darker corners of the web—or solicits a prostitute, or sleeps with his neighbor’s wife—he puts the lie to that statement. He doesn’t trust in Jesus—or at the very least, his understanding of what “trusting Jesus” means is very confused. Jesus said, “A tree will be known by its fruit.”

This is a principal that applies to more than just sexual sin. Grace is not a loophole that says: “It doesn’t matter what you do, sin all you want, Jesus’ blood will cover it all.” Just the opposite. When grace enters your life it urges you to do away with sin more and more. It doesn’t always expect you to win the fight, but it lets you know that not fighting means death.

Why should we seek to be sexually pure? The first answer is that sexual impurity is dangerous. God punishes sin. Like I said, that’s a negative reason for being pure. It’s a warning. It’s a threat. But, more than just “don’t do that or you’ll get burned”, the Bible also speaks of incentives for doing what is right.

When you handle fire correctly, when you kindle and tend it in the fireplace where it belongs, then it brings you warmth and pleasure and joy. In the same way, God says that when you follow His will there is greater gratification then there would be if you went the other way. We should seek to be sexually pure because it is good for us.

In this particular passage, the incentive Paul calls our attention to is holiness. We should seek sexual purity because God has called us to be holy.

The call to holiness pervades this passage. It’s all over it. Verse 3: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified [that is, “holy”].” Verse 4: “Each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable”. Verse 7: “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” Verse 8: “Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”

The opposite of sexual impurity is a life of holiness. It is purity. It is a relationship with the holy God.

I don’t know how better to describe holiness than to say that it is the dominant characteristic of God. How do you describe God? He’s holy. “Holy, Holy, Holy” the angels sing in Isaiah.
Psalm 29:2 says: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of His holiness.” I love that verse, because it says that holiness is beautiful. And it is. God’s holiness means that He does nothing wrong. He is set apart from all evil, separate from all ugliness. God’s holiness is His perfection: perfect love, perfect peace, perfect justice, perfect everything.

And Paul is urging us to trade in sexual impurity for this beautiful holiness. He’s inviting us—not just to escape the fires of damnation, but—to enjoy and relish the splendor of a holy life with God.

Why should we seek to be sexually pure? Because sexual impurity is bad for us, but more than that, because sexual purity is good for us. We were called to be holy.

*Avoid, Enjoy, and Know**
III. The third question, then, is what do we do? Given this Biblical perspective on sex, how do apply it to our lives? What help is there for fighting the good fight of faith against the temptation to sexual sin?

I’ve found three points of application in our text today, and they can be summed up in the words: avoid, enjoy, and know. In light of the Biblical view of sex, this passage calls us to avoid, enjoy, and know.

First, avoid. Simple and straightforward. Paul says in verse 3:

you should avoid sexual immorality.

The word means to “stay away from,” to “abstain.” The Bible “urges” (v. 1) us to keep sexual sin out of our lives.

That means if you are not married, you should wait. My friend Matt says:

Don’t start a fire anywhere if God has not given you a fireplace...God works for those who wait. His plan for your sexuality is the best plan that could ever be devised for you. The fire He's going to build for you, either now or in the next life when sex is over and the relationship that it was a signpost for now is made full, the fire He's going to build for you, will be the warmest, brightest, coziest, fire that could be ever imagined. Trying to go around his plan and start your fire where you think it should start is a big, big mistake with guaranteed bad results. Wait. Wait.

And if you are married, you should avoid sexual immorality by protecting the marriage relationship you have. Protect. Tend the fire. Keep it burning brightly in the fireplace. Build hedges around it to keep it safe.

Avoid sexual immorality by waiting and protecting. That leads directly into the second piece of advice in our text, which is:

Enjoy. Enjoy. If you are married, then you should enjoy sexual intimacy with your spouse.

I get this from verse 4. The NIV translates this verse to say:

each of you should learn to control your own body.

But if you’ll notice the footnote there you’ll see that this could also be translated as:

Learn to live with your own wife.

Now, for a lot of reasons I won’t go into, most scholars agree that the footnote is the preferred translation here. (cf. Thomas, Expositer’s, p. 271). That doesn’t change the force of what I said earlier about sexuality being something we can control, but it does nuance it a little. What Paul is saying is that we can avoid the temptation to sexual sin by enjoying sex with our spouse. As one commentator says, “A wholesome marriage was…Paul’s antidote for ‘sexual immorality.’” (Thomas, ibid).

Essentially, Paul is saying, “If you have the fireplace, enjoy the fire.”

Indulge sexual desire in the way God has intended. Obviously, this only works for those who are married. But for those who are married, the Bible says: go for it. Enjoy your spouse. Enjoy the pleasure of sexual intimacy that God has given to us.

God’s intention for sex—and remember, He created it—is that we experience it in the covenantal commitment of marriage. It’s the opposite of lust, because sex in that context honors your spouse and respects God.

The third piece of advice to be gleaned from this passage—and the most important--is know. Know God. The best way for us to fight the ugliness of sin is to know the greater beauty of God.
You see this in verse 5. When Paul tells us to learn to conduct ourselves in a way that is holy and honorable, he contrasts that with the passionate lust of the heathen who, he says, “do not know God.” Clearly, the way for us to fight lust is by knowing God.

And so, we must cultivate our understanding of God. We must know more of His holiness. More of His greatness and worth. More of His power and glory and grace. The more we comprehend of God’s sweetness and affection and peace, the less we will desire things that don’t measure up.

John Piper writes:

When faith has the upper hand in my heart I am satisfied with Christ and his promises. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “He who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). When my thirst for joy and meaning and passion are satisfied by the presence and promises of Christ, the power of sin is broken. We do not yield to the offer of sandwich meat when we can smell the steak sizzling on the grill…

The challenge before us in our fight against lust is not merely to do what God says because He is God, but to desire what God says because he is glorious. The challenge is not merely to pursue righteousness, but to prefer righteousness…As [the knowledge of God] satisfies us with the joy set before us, the biblical demand for purity of heart will not be burdensome (1 John 5:3), and the power of lust will be broken. Its deceitful compensation will appear too brief and too shallow to lure us in. (Future Grace, 335,338)

Sex is for marriage like fire is for the fireplace. The Bible is frank and forthright: there is much to be avoided, but also much to be gained. And so we are called to fight the good fight of faith, to live lives of beautiful holiness, to let God be God of all—including our bedrooms.