Redeeming Sexuality: In Paul’s day, as in ours, the Christian ethic has differed widely from that of the culture at large. Throughout the Roman empire, confusion was widespread as to the real purpose and nature of sexuality, which was viewed differently within marriage and outside of it. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul shows us that God has specific designs for sexuality within marriage: as a reflection of joy and pleasure, the source of new life in the world, and a way to grow in intimate knowledge of one another. Sexual attraction or desire isn’t inherently sinful, but it must be expressed in the right context. Recorded on Nov 6, 2022, on 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, by Pastor David Parks.
Recorded on Nov 6, 2022, on 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, by Pastor David Parks.
This message is part of our sermon series “Redeeming Regular Life,” from the Epistles of the New Testament in the Bible. The Epistles are letters from the Apostles to the early Christian churches around the Roman Empire, helping them understand and apply the gospel to life. The way of Jesus changes everything, including marriage, sexuality, singleness, parenting, work, politics, and friends. In some ways, it’s easier to accept Jesus our Savior than it is to accept him as the Lord of our lives who wants to make some changes in our lives. In Christ, regular life is a gift. The way of Jesus is not easy, but it’s the way of redemption which leads to true and lasting freedom, joy, and peace.
This year, our annual theme is, Learning the way of Jesus. And we’re working through a sermon series called Redeeming Regular Life. This series is from the epistles of the New Testament in the Bible. The epistles are letters from the Apostles to the early Christian churches around the Roman Empire, helping them understand and apply the gospel to life. “To what part of life?” you might wonder. And the answer is: to every part! The way of Jesus changes everything. Last week, we started this series with the teaching of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesian church on marriage, that a healthy and godly relationship between a husband and wife can be a beautiful picture of the gospel and the relationship between Christ and the church. If you missed that, you can always go back and watch on YouTube or listen to the audio podcast. But today, we maybe naturally move from the topic of marriage to sexuality. And some of you might wonder if this is an appropriate topic to be talking about at church. And I would say two things. First, kids start learning about sexuality in school around 5th grade and probably earlier from their friends or TV or whatever. So if we fail to address this in church, they will only have a worldly perspective on a very powerful and important topic. Second, the Bible addresses it, so we should probably hear what the Lord has to say about it, too. I think you’ll find the biblical perspective to be both realistic and very relevant to us today. So with that, let’s consider redeeming sexuality. If you have a Bible/app, please open to 1Co 7:1. We’ll read this first and then unpack it together.
1 Corinthians 7:1-7 (NIV), “Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”
The book of 1 Corinthians in the Bible is an epistle/letter from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in and around the city of Corinth in the modern country of Greece. Paul spent a few years in Corinth, preaching the gospel, making disciples, and getting the church started there before moving on. But, Paul would write back to encourage his friends in their faith, to clarify the gospel, and to remind them of what he taught when he was among them. However, there were occasions when there was a specific issue or point of confusion that he had to correct. And our passage starts with one of those issues relating to sexuality. Look back at v. 1.
1 Corinthians 7:1-2 (NIV), “Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.” Ok, let’s pause here. So verse 1 implies that the Corinthians had evidently written to Paul about sexuality, and it appears that Paul quotes a statement from their letter to him, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” This is a technique that Paul uses throughout this letter, quoting the Corinthians and then responding to each statement, sometimes affirming, sometimes correcting what they said. Literally, the phrase is, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The euphemism of “a man touching a woman” doesn’t mean to get married, have kids, and settle down. In their commentary on 1 Corinthians, Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner document using ancient sources that this phrase implies having sex for casual purposes in or outside a marriage, and only for pleasure (The First Letter to the Corinthians, p 270). This phrase, in the Roman culture of Corinth in the first century AD, was used to refer to a sexual relationship with a household slave or a prostitute, or anyone other than your spouse. A modern phrase might be, “It is good for a man not to hook up with a woman.” Paul (and I) might respond, well, that’s true, but for those who are married, it’s not necessarily wrong to take pleasure from sex with your spouse. So having sex as a pleasurable or fun activity isn’t necessarily wrong, as with so many other things, it all depends on the context. But, Paul says, because of sexual immorality, husbands and wives should have sexual relations. Now, the NIV translation adds since sexual immorality “is occurring.” That language isn’t in the original text, but it does come up earlier in 1 Corinthians in chapter 5 and 6. In chapter 5, Paul addresses a situation where someone in the church is sleeping with their father’s wife, and seems to be boasting/proud about it. Perhaps they had misunderstood the grace of God to mean that it doesn’t matter how we act because God will forgive any evil thing we do. While it’s true we are forgiven for every sin because of the person and work of Jesus, the grace of God never gives us permission to do whatever sinful thing we want to do. On the contrary, God’s grace makes us want to learn the way of Jesus and obey him, not rebel against him. Then in chapter 6, Paul refers to sleeping with a prostitute, saying, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1Co 6:18-20). Now whether or not this meant that prostitution was a problem in Corinth, although I think it might’ve been, both of these sections of the letter imply there was sexual immorality occurring in the church in Corinth. And since this was occurring, Paul the pastor reminds his friends that “each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.” He goes on to unpack what he means by this. Look back at v. 3.
1 Corinthians 7:3-4 (NIV), “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” Now, this is so counter-cultural. And I’m reminded, yet again, that the way of Jesus is different than every other way. Everyone everywhere is challenged in their cultural expectations by Jesus. It was no different in Paul’s day. Remember, there was a much different cultural context for the people Paul was writing to. His original audience in Corinth was highly influenced by Roman culture. And in that culture, there was a clear double standard regarding sex. First, it was expected that if a woman was married, she would remain faithful to her husband, but they would only have sex for the purpose of procreation, of having kids. Now, in a way, this elevates the purpose of sex as noble and special in being the only means of having children. However, sexuality in marriage was not seen as an appropriate thing to do for fun or pleasure. Greek thought viewed sexual desire as part of our lower, physical nature. As a result, many people thought of sex as something which was really dirty or shameful, but necessary for having children. On the other hand, a husband could have sex for pleasure in Roman culture, but only so long as it was with someone from a lower station or class, such as a slave or household servant, or a prostitute. It was frowned upon for him to have an affair with another married woman, but only because it would’ve been seen as an offense against her husband. So there was a clear double standard in what was expected of men and women, and there was confusion as to the purpose and nature of sexuality. But notice what Paul is saying, against the culture of their day, he says that husbands and wives bear equal rights and responsibility in marriage intimacy; that sex in marriage should be a two-way street. “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” This is such a radically different view of sexuality than the Corinthians would’ve expected, but it could easily be another application of the principle we saw last week where Paul said, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21). Submission in marriage should include submitting your physical body to your spouse in addition to the union of every other aspect of life in the marriage covenant. Two becoming “one flesh” certainly includes more than physical intimacy, but not less. But how often are we talking here, Paul? How important should sexuality be in marriage? We see this in v.5. Look back at that.
1 Corinthians 7:5 (NIV), “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Did you know this was in the Bible? Whenever we read through this passage in premarital counseling, it is always surprising to people. Because the only thing Paul envisions that might disrupt regular physical intimacy in marriage might be a time of fasting and prayer. But, he writes, only if both the husband and wife are in agreement, “by mutual consent,” and not forever, but only “for a time.” Why? Why is this such a big deal? So that Satan, our adversary, and all the spiritual forces of evil, will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. Sexual immorality was no more or less of a temptation 2,000 years ago as it is today. Attraction and desire are powerfully hardwired into us as human beings. And one of the best ways to guard against being ruled by our attractions or desires is not to view sex as a dirty or shameful thing but to develop a healthy, regular sexual relationship with your spouse in marriage. Sexual attraction or desire isn’t inherently sinful, but it must be expressed in the right context. But does this mean that if one partner is not able to give themselves to the other as much as they would like, that sexual immorality is ok? Not at all. There are certainly seasons in life when even a vibrant and healthy marriage will not have as much sex or none at all for a time. Whether due to an illness or being physically separated because of work, or some other reason, there are times when normal physical relations are just not possible. This doesn’t let us off the hook of marital faithfulness. Instead, the fruit of the Spirit, including the fruits of patience, self-control, and faithfulness, are needed. But these difficult situations are anticipated by the marriage vows. That for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, you promised to love and cherish one another until death parts you. Wedding vows are the promise of future love and fidelity, no matter what. However, so long as you both are able, husbands and wives should not deprive each other of physical attention or affection. But doesn’t this teaching make sex too important? Sexual attraction is powerful, but is it everything? The answer is found in v. 6.
1 Corinthians 7:6-7 (NIV), “I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” Paul was a single guy. And apparently, it wasn’t an issue for him to remain single and celibate. In fact, Paul saw it as a gift, not as a disability or deficiency in life. Staying single allowed Paul to remain more focused on his ministry for the Lord, but neither did he see his celibacy as required for all of God’s people or as a means by which he could be spiritually elite. Other apostles were married and this wasn’t sinful. When Jesus taught on remaining single and celibate in Mt 19, he said, “The one who can accept this should accept it.” So both marriage and singleness are gifts of God. Last week we said that Christians believe that it was God who created the institution of marriage and the family to be the basic building block of society. Not that everyone has to get married, and of course, not everyone who gets married stays married for various reasons. So, in the same way, Christians believe that it was God who created human gender and sexuality, too. Not for us to use however we see fit, but for his powerful and meaningful purposes. In this passage, we see one purpose for sexuality in marriage is simply the joy and pleasure that is supposed to be at the heart of the marriage relationship. We see this purpose in the poetry of The Song of Songs in the OT. Elsewhere in Scripture, we find that it is also God’s intention that the purpose of sexuality in marriage would be new life in the conception and birth of children. Children are always described as a blessing from God. It’s true that babies are an exhausting and chaotic blessing, but they are a blessing nonetheless. In addition to pleasure and procreation, the final purpose for sexuality in marriage is a growing intimate knowledge between the husband and wife, to know one another on a deeper and more intimate level than any other relationship. When you feel deeply emotionally connected to each other, physical intimacy can be a very natural outcome, but physical intimacy can also generate and reinforce emotional connection.
But what do we do with this teaching? How do we apply this to our lives today? I’d like to leave you with just three brief takeaways today. First, I understand that the Christian sexual ethic of faithfulness in marriage and celibacy outside of marriage has never been popular; however, it is clearly taught in Scripture. Now, if you don’t believe in God or if you don’t trust that the Bible is God’s word, then I would understand why you’d have very different beliefs about these things, perhaps believing that gender and sexuality are not objective realities, but subjective experiences guided not by divine command but by your own preferences or opinion. If there is no transcendent God, then morals (including sexual ethics) are simply our opinions. From that perspective, I understand why hearing a teaching like this might seem harmful or restrictive. Who are you to tell me what I do with my body?? Why should your opinions about what is right and wrong trump mine? Fair enough. But if God is real and this world is his creation, including our bodies, our gender, and the whole rest of our lives, then isn’t it reasonable to think that God might have some intention for how our lives ought to work, including our sexuality? So while this teaching might be countercultural (as we’ve seen, it always has been), it’s simply part of the call to discipleship, of learning the way of Jesus, a way founded by faith and trust in God our creator, savior, and redeemer. So first, this is just part of learning the way of Jesus. Second, because sexual attraction and desire is so powerful, and because of the power of sin in this broken world, I know that some of you have experienced deep and painful wounds because of either your own sexual sin or the sin of what others have done to you. I’m sorry. Sexual abuse is a great evil and should not have happened to you. Part of the redemption offered in the gospel is the promise of the forgiveness of our sin but also the cleansing of our shame. Jesus is making all things new. In him you are a new creation who can enjoy true and lasting freedom and joy and peace, regardless of what has happened in your past. Turn to him and trust in him. He will bring redemption and healing and will set you free. But third, and finally, for the married couples here today, how are you all doing with this? Have you seen your physical relationship as only what you’re able to get from your spouse in self-gratification, or have you seen it as an opportunity to love and serve your spouse sacrificially and grow in intimacy with them? Would you say you communicate well about these topics or avoid them out of discomfort or embarrassment? Do not give up this ground to the evil one who seeks to divide and destroy. But recommit your selves to your wedding vows, to love and to cherish, no matter what, until death do us part. Sexuality is a powerful thing, but it’s not the most important thing in life. We must not be foolish about it or worldly in our thinking. But in Christ, regular life, including our sexuality, is a gift. The way of Jesus is not easy, but it’s the only way of redemption which leads to true and lasting freedom, joy, and peace. Let us pray.