It’s the Sunday everyone has been waiting for… it’s the Sunday where we talk about sex. Just a heads up—just a warning—we’re going there today (in a very PG sort-of-way). We have to—because the seventh commandment says this:
“Do not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20v14)
I hear the command, and I immediately apply it to the nuclear family of the twentieth or twenty-first century. I tend to think about the mom and dad on “Leave it to Beaver”—even if though I’ve never seen an episode—and think that dad shouldn’t step out on mom and mom shouldn’t step out on dad. And I’m absolutely right to think that. Mr and Mrs Cleaver shouldn’t step out on each other. That’s adultery.
But what’s interesting—and disturbing to most of us—is that’s not quite how the original hearers of this commandment understood it. Adultery actually meant something different in the Ancient Near East than it does now. And the command actually landed differently on the two different genders.
For a woman—if you were Mrs Cleaver in the ancient world—you committed adultery by sleeping with any man you were not married to. That sounds familiar to us. Adultery is happening when Mrs Cleaver. sleeps with anyone besides Mr. Cleaver.
But for a man—if you were Mr. Clever in the ancient world—you committed adultery by sleeping with any woman… who was married. Mr Cleaver commits adultery when he sleeps with another married woman.
A married man sleeping with an unmarried woman is a little bit of a different situation though. It’s not quite adultery. Deuteronomy 22 actually gives guidelines if a situation like this happens:
If a man [Mr Cleaver] meets up with a young woman who is a virgin and not engaged, grabs her and has sex with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who had sex with her must give fifty silver shekels to the young woman’s father. She will also become his wife because he has humiliated her. He is never allowed to divorce her. (Deuteronomy 22v28-29)
Who’s the wounded party—who’s getting paid in this situation? (Not a trick question…) In the ancient world—where women are effectively treated as property—the person most wronged by Mr Cleaver grabbing and having sex with a virgin daughter… is the virgin’s dad. Dad is the wounded party. Dad gets paid fifty shekels. And daughter becomes another Mrs Cleaver. Maybe number two. Maybe number ten. Mr Cleaver becomes responsible for protecting her in a harsh world, providing for her in a male-dominated economy… and he cannot shirk his responsibility at any point by divorcing her. But Dad is the wounded party who needs to be compensated… because adultery in the ancient world was understood to be primarily about protecting men’s rights, men’s property, men having rightful heirs.
It’s only adultery in the ancient world if Mr Cleaver sleeps with another married woman. If she’s unmarried… it’s still an issue… just not quite adultery. Mr Cleaver may wind up with a second or third Mrs Cleaver… but no one is going to get killed or stoned or anything. That’s something like how this command was understood by its original ancient audience.
How many of us find this a little bit troubling?
We’re going to get to the meaning of adultery that we’re more familiar with… but I couldn’t skip over this. I care too much about what the Bible actually says to skip over it. The ancient hearers of this commandment heard something different than us. So before we say anything else about adultery, we might just recognize this:
God always meets us in the midst of human brokenness.
God met the societal structures of the ancient world where they were at… that’s what God is like. God’s grace and God’s commands do not come to an idealized version of human society. God comes to the world as the world is. God’s is always graciously working with the conditions on the ground. God always meets us where we’re at and invites us into deeper and truer and better life.
And make no mistake, that deeper, truer life is there from page one of Scripture. There’s always an ideal being aimed at, regardless of whether Israel ever lived into it. We’re talking, of course, about the creation story—
Genesis 1 and 2. The woman not as man’s property but as man’s partner. One man and one woman bonded in life-long loyalty and partnership. Marriage. That’s God’s ideal. That’s God’s design. That’s what God had in mind.
But when things go south—when humanity turns away from God and ends up corrupt and broken and distorted… God meets us in the midst of our brokenness. He gives ancient Israel a commandment that gets understood a particular way in their ancient culture—that meets them where they’re at. But the ideal of marriage—the creation story—is always there, calling them deeper.
Do you know who it is who eventually clarifies this commandment, who eventually levels the field for the genders, who explicitly reiterates monogamy as God’s design for marriage? It’s God. God-made-human in Jesus of Nazareth. He says:
“You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. (Matthew 5v27-28)
That’s quite the shift.
God the Son shifts our attention from sex life to thought life. From what we’re doing in the privacy of our bedroom to what we’re doing in the privacy of our brain. Jesus says, “I know you’ve all thought about adultery one way, but here’s the better way to think about it: don’t even fantasize. Don’t cultivate lust.”
Jesus goes on in Matthew 19 to point people back to the creation story as God’s ideal of marriage. That’s the place of sex in our lives. According to the design of creation, the words of Jesus, and the wisdom of the church, sexual activity properly belongs between one man and one woman. Everything else is adultery. Even in our thought life.
A lot of times, we can get the impression from churches that sex is something of problem. So maybe we just come out and say this: sex is gift from God. Sex is beautiful. Sex is good. Sex is gift. Sex is sacred and holy. In fact, the picture of a man and woman—married and in love, loyal and erotic—is a frequent picture of Jesus and us—of Christ and the Church:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… 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. (Ephesians 5v25, 27-30)
Do you hear the intimacy here? Feed. Care for. Love—as your own body. Give yourself up for. The wife and her husband and their marriage bed points as a picture to the deepest truth about the world and her maker. That Jesus loves us—all of us—with the deepest, most intimate, most loyal-kind-of love. The kind of love that endlessly loves, that cares for, that gives up itself for the good of the other. That’s the gospel if you need to hear it. That, in Jesus, God gives up himself up for our good. God takes our death on himself and endlessly gives us his life. That’s what God is like. Sacrificial, self-giving love is woven into life and creation at the deepest levels. We could say it this way:
Jesus shows us that true life is about what we can give not what we can get.
Truest, deepest life is about what we can give not what we can get. That’s really a picture of the entire purpose of marriage. Two people—husband and wife—learning to give to each to each other in every conceivable way. Two people learning loyalty, learning sacrifice, learning—in the security of a life-long commitment—what it means to live the gospel. Truest, deepest life is found in giving not getting.
And that includes sex.
The deepest joy of sex is the pleasure of giving pleasure.
And now we’re in a position, I think, to understand the deadly venom of adultery. Adultery is especially toxic because adultery is never about giving. Adultery is always taking. In fact, we should put that on a slide:
Adultery is always taking, never giving.
That’s why Scripture—especially the wisdom literature—warns us so strongly against committing adultery. That’s why a proverb like this gets written handed down to us:
He who commits adultery is senseless.
Doing so, he destroys himself.
Adultery destroys us. Not because there’s anything wrong with sex. Sex is sacred and good and beautiful and powerful… and that’s precisely WHY adultery destroys us. Sex is especially powerful and so adultery is especially poisonous. Adultery poisons us—it “destroys” us, in the language of the Proverbs—because it runs against the grain of the universe:
…it’s always taking, never giving.
That’s the danger of adultery and all sexual sin… whether it’s who we’re sleeping with or who we’re chatting with online, or the images we’re clicking on, or the fantasies we escape into. The danger is that we’re becoming increasingly consumed with ourselves, and increasingly disconnected from others and real, vulnerable relationships. Disconnect from real love.
An author named Garret Keizer frames the danger this way:
“The God of Genesis is characterized in part by the pleasure he takes in what he has made. ‘And God saw that it was good.’ The worldview of the envious – and to a certain extent, of the lustful and avaricious too – runs counter to God’s vision. Nothing they see is good, or good enough, or else nothing they see is enough of the good. In other words, you can never please them, which is as good a definition as you may get of what it means to be damned.” (The Enigma of Anger)
When our lives become consumed with getting instead of giving we eventually find ourselves in this position. Nothing is good or good enough or there’s never enough of the good. And so we sleep with the next person. We click the next image—the next website. We chase the next fantasy. We read the next romance novel.
And there’s this huge danger—not just in sex but in all of life—that we would become insatiable. That we can never be filled. That we can never be pleased. That every bit of our lives—including our sexuality—would become consumed with filling ourselves. Always taking, never giving. And at that point, we’re living completely opposite of the life of God. A damnation-kind-of-life.
As I was preparing this sermon, I kept picturing of a human heart. But it’s a strange heart—the kind of heart that’s more interested in getting blood than pumping blood. The human heart is this organ that’s designed to give all that it receives. That’s how it—and everything connected to it—finds life. The heart receives blood through the veins and then always, relentlessly gives that blood away the arteries.
The heart is endlessly, regularly receiving the goodness of the blood. But imagine if the heart became obsessed with getting rather than giving. If it just became obsessed with the blood—it just wants more and more and more blood. Like a vampire… a vampire heart. What would quickly happen to that heart? The wisdom of that proverb applies here:
A vampire heart is senseless and it destroys itself.
And everything connected to it.
Adultery is having a vampire heart. Our being self-consumed ends with our self being consumed. Self-obsession ends up as self-destruction. And—here’s the thing: the passion of God is our fulfillment not our destruction. God warns us against adultery because it never ever fulfills.
We’ve all experienced this. Whether or not we’ve ever committed adultery in the bedroom—we’ve all committed it in the brain. We’ve committed it in our heart. And we know—we’ve experienced it—that it does. not. satisfy.
We’ve all experienced brokenness in our sexualities and our appetites and our longings… in some form or another. You’re not crazy. That path hasn’t satisfied. And it never fill. But there is a path that will. And we are invited—in our brokenness, in our regret, in our shame, in our deep hunger—we are invited to take a different path.
We see this clearly in a story recorded for us in John 8:
And Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he returned to the temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and taught them.The legal experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery.
Placing her in the center of the group…
We like to do this, don’t we? We like to throw sexual sin into the middle of the crowd and make sexual sin the “sin of sins”—the brokenness above all other brokenness.
…Placing her in the center of the group, they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?”
They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him. Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger.
They continued to question him, so he stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” Bending down again, he wrote on the ground.
Those who heard him went away, one by one, beginning with the elders. Finally, only Jesus and the woman were left in the middle of the crowd.
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”
She said, “No one, sir.”
Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” (John 8v1-11)
Here, once again, is the God of Israel meeting humanity in its brokenness. When adultery gets clarified, everyone gets broken. And God always meets us in our brokenness. God doesn’t wait on an ideal version of us to arrive. He meets us. As we are. God meets us in our brokenness and calls us our of our brokenness into deeper and truer and better life. We find ourselves in the presence of God and we are not condemned.
The only invitation this morning is let Jesus gaze at you—let his love and his passion pierce you—let his words sink in: “I do not condemn you.” And then say “yes” to his invitation. Say yes to no more sin. Say yes to a lifetime of saying no to sin—no to a vampire heart. And yes to a bleeding heart—to a pumping heart, to a life consumed with giving love… because in that giving you will be filled.