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TEXT: I Corinthians 7:1-40
SUBJECT: Sexual Saints
People who say 'The Bible is out of date' have never read I Corinthians. If scholars and churchmen didn't assure us it that the book was written in the middle of the 1st Century, we might think it was written last Tuesday: it's that up to date!
What's the world like today? For one thing, it is a divided world, a partisan world, with people rallying around their leaders and demonizing everyone on the other side. You hear this every day on talk radio, and this summer, you'll see it writ large at the Republican and Democratic Conventions.
Our world is also a litigious place, with a record number of people taking each other to court, sometimes for the flimsiest reasons. Maybe you remember the woman who sued McDonald's because her coffee was too hot.
California is still the land of fruits and nuts, with New Age gurus marketing 'illumination' and 'spiritual power' to people stupid enough to buy their books or attend their seminars or join their cults.
Then, there's the philosophy of naturalism that often goes by the name of 'science'. It tells us that Jesus didn't rise from the dead because the Resurrection of the body is impossible, and in the unlikely event that people survive death, it will be in some kind of non-material or spiritual state.
Finally, there's the thing on everybody's mind: sex. From office chatter to men's magazines to supermarket ads to internet websites, to network sitcoms, the world we live in is awash in sex, and most of it immoral.
If you know your Bible, you know that I have not only described the world we live in, but also outlined the Book of I Corinthians! Paul's Letter to a church long ago on the other side of the world speaks directly and powerfully to the church today on this side of the world. Of course there are some cultural differences-and they have to be accounted for-but for all that, I Corinthians could have been written five minutes ago. It's more up to date than your Sunday newspaper.
In Chapter 7, Paul takes up a few sexual matters, all of which were important to the Corinthians-and to us.
The chapter is usually read as a list of rules: rules for the unmarried, rules for the married, rules for the separated, and rules for the widowed. Pretty much everyone is covered by the rules, and where they are laid down, we ought to obey them. But I don't think this is the best way to read the chapter, and I know it's not the best way to preach it!
We ought to read the chapter as a challenge to live our lives in such a way as to confirm the Gospel and to model 'the new and living world' to a world that is 'old and passing away'. Most people you know are sexually unhappy, whether they're young or old, married or single, doing without or getting it every night; most people are frustrated and despairing. They have believed the promises of Hollywood and Playboy Magazine and romance novels, and the promises have proven false!
The Bible does not deny our sexual nature or suggest it's a dirty thing; God is not against sex: He invented it! Because sex is His Thing, it has to be practiced His way. And not because He's going to strike you dead if you don't-though He's done that before-but because unless your sex glorifies Him, it will not satisfy you.
This is the subject of today's chapter: Sexual saints.
Paul does not bring this up on his own. They had asked him about it, and it's not hard to figure out why. His teaching and example were very much out-of-step with the only life they had ever known. The first thing they wanted to know is: Is sex wrong? The second half of v.1 should be in quotation marks. They were saying-
It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
'Touching a woman' is a polite way of saying, 'having sex with her'. Is this true? Paul says it is. 'It is the life I have chosen, the life Jesus chose, and the life God chose for Jeremiah, Daniel, and saints in every time and place'. Singleness is good!
He picks up on this later in the chapter. In v.7, he says, I wish that all men were even as I am myself. In v.8, he adds, It is good for them if they remain even as I am. As he works his way down the chapter, he tells us why he prefers it. The single life is:
And to top it all off, more often than not it is, v.40-
Talk about counter-cultural! We feel sorry for the woman who never married! We wonder what's wrong with the man who can't get a girl! Paul says 'Save your pity; there's nothing wrong with being single!'
We ought to affirm our single brothers and sisters. Be happy for them if they marry, and be just as happy for them if don't. Some singles are unhappy because they want to marry; others, I suspect, are unhappy because they're expected to marry, and if they don't, their friends will wonder what's wrong with them!
You want a witnessing tool? Forget pamphlets and DVDs and bumper stickers. Content singles! Men not on the prowl; women not desperate; people content with God's Providence and satisfied with the love of Christ! That's an apologetic the world's got no answer for!
Single Christians glorify God when they live celibate lives that are also happy and thankful.
THE MARRIEDNext, he comes the married, vv.2-6-
Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife and each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to the husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession and not as a commandment.
Not everyone is cut out for the single life and most will marry. When they do-Paul says-make sure to keep up a frequent and uncoerced sex life. Of course the frequency will depend on many things from age to health to busyness, but allowing for all these things, depriving one another is not an option for disciples of Christ. We're not allowed to do that.
A husband has a right to his wife's body and a wife has the same claim on her husband. But Paul says nothing about 'exercising your rights'. He doesn't tell the man to insist on what's his or the woman to demand what she has coming. He turns it around: Don't take, give. Be cheerful and generous in bed.
Are there exceptions to the rule? Yes, but they're not what you think they are. There's nothing in her about pulling away from your husband because you're disappointed in him or from your wife because she's not as young as she used to be. Bitterness and boredom are not reasons to sleep apart. Prayer and fasting is what Paul names, and even then-for things this high and holy and spiritual-the respite mustn't be too long.
Married people content in their sex life is another witness the world can't do anything with. Most couples you know are unhappy in bed. They may relieve one another regularly, but there's no joy. The wife is putting in her time-like doing the laundry, only worse! The man is thinking about somebody else. There's no love in their lovemaking. Separated from love and commitment and generosity, sex becomes a god, but it's a false god, and like all idols, it betrays you in the end.
Married Christians glorify God when they enjoy one another!
In vv.10-16, Paul speaks to people who have rocky marriages, and here he underlines the Divine authority for what he's saying, v.10-
I command, yet not I, but the Lord.
Marriage for disciples is permanent, 'till death do us part'. This is what Paul says, and if he needed to, he could cite the sayings of Christ to prove it, especially this one-
What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
Paul is not a naïve man. He knows marriages can get pretty bad, and even Christians can be impossible to live with. In such cases, he allows for separation, but not re-marriage because he assumes that, both being Christians, God will work on them both until they can live in peace with each other. When believers split up, the goal is not 'getting on with life or 'finding someone new'. It's reconciliation. Though it seems impossible, it is possible, because-
Nothing is too hard for the Lord.
Most of us have seen this in a couple. I never met a woman who hated her husband more than she did. But after a short time apart, she told me God filled her with love for her man, and they're back together and happy.
If our friends' neighbors didn't believe in God, how can they explain the reconciliation? They can't, but when they're asked, our friends can. After years of fighting and neglecting one another, they're now-
Sanctifying the Lord God in their hearts, and ready to give an answer to everyone who asks them the reason of the hope within them in meekness and fear.
What about mixed marriages? Suppose a pagan woman marries a pagan man, and then she becomes a Christian? Is she still married? And if she is, should she divorce her husband to honor Christ?
Paul says she is still married, and that-if her husband is willing to live with her new life in Christ-she should stay with him.
Why? Not because it's easy to live with a man who mocks your faith and does all kinds of vile things in the name of his own, but in the hopes of saving him and your children.
Paul doesn't want Christian women to marry such men, but if they already are married, he wants them to confirm the Gospel they share with them by being loyal and loving wives. Peter picks up this theme in I Peter 3:1-
Likewise you wives, be in subjection to your own husbands that, if any do not obey the word, they may, without the word be won by the godly conduct of their wives.
But what about the Pagan husband who won't live with a Christian wife? Either because she no longer shares his faith, or, more likely, because her godliness makes him feel ashamed of himself? If he leaves, Paul says, let him go-
A brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.
But, he hints in v.16, be sure he leaves on his own, and not because you have pushed him out with your own sanctimony and hypocrisy.
WHEREVER YOU ARE, BE CONTENT
Up to now, Paul has harped on one big idea: be content where you are in life, and live Christianly whether you're single or married, married to the saintliest man on earth or the witchiest woman!
In vv.17-24, he applies the principle beyond marriage. If you're a Jew, be a Christian Jew. If you're a Gentile, be a Christian Gentile. If you're a slave, be a Christian slave. If you're free, be a free Christian!
Jesus is Lord of all, and you can follow Him wherever you are in life. Don't worry about being single: concern yourself with being a godly single! Don't worry about being married, be a godly husband or wife.
You should do this because whether you're a Jew or Gentile, slave or free, single or married or widowed-
You are bought with a price!
This means, at the cost of His own life, Jesus bought you, you belong to Him, and your number one priority in life is not to get a husband or get rid of a wife, but to please Him wherever He has put you.
In vv.25-35, Paul addresses what he calls virgins, and we'd call 'engaged young ladies'. If we should be content where we are in life, and if Paul prefers singleness to marriage, should engaged couples break up?
Paul's answer is: It depends.
If they're willing and able to live celibate lives then yes. But if they lack self-control to do that, by all means, get married. But if you're going to marry, he reminds us, it won't be a bed of roses. No marriage is easy, and the stress of living under the shadow of persecution made it much harder. The Romans are coming and they're going to come down hard on us. This means many marriages will end in persecution and martyrdom. If you're willing to live with that, marry; if you're not, don't marry.
But in every case, think about serving Christ and whether marriage will likely make that easier or harder.
I wonder how many couples think of this? Will marrying-and marrying that man or woman-make me a better servant of Christ or a worse servant? Romance has to take a back seat to godliness. If you're going to marry, marry wisely, and you don't do that when you're not thinking of where Jesus fits in.
FATHERS GIVING AWAY THEIR DAUGHTERS
In vv.36-38, Paul speaks to fathers giving their daughters in marriage and applies the same principle. Marriage is good, but singleness can be better; act accordingly, and remember Christ.
He closes the chapter with a word to widows. He prefers her to remain single after her husband's death, but if she needs to marry, she's free to do so, as long as she marries a Christian man-
Only in the Lord.
If you think I'm laboring the point, you're right, I am. Because that's what Paul is doing in this chapter. He's hammering away on the importance of sexual holiness in the context of living for Christ in general.
Our whole lives belong to Christ, including our sexual lives. What are we going to do with this part of ourselves? There are only two choices: We can give them to Christ, by remaining celibate and pure outside of marriage and loving and pure in marriage. Or we can waste God's gift on ourselves, on our shallow and selfish desires, sexual lust or stinginess in marriage.
Do we want to preach the Gospel to the world that is perishing without Christ? How can we do that when our marriages-which are supposed to model our union with Christ in the world-are the petty and bitter and self-centered things they are? There's more bound up in a happy marriage than your happiness! The glory of God and the salvation of the world are at stake.
The same is true of your singleness. You tell your friends that Jesus is enough. But then you show them He isn't by being discontent or looking for love in all the wrong places.
Funny as it sounds, God has called us to be sexual saints! We ought to strive for this, but our striving is not enough. In this world, no amount of willpower will shut out the dirty images that push themselves into our minds. Lust cannot be controlled by human will. Only God's Grace will master it, and this is what the Gospel promises to everyone who believes. The mastery doesn't come in a day (for most people); you may have to struggle with it your whole life. But as you believe and meditate on the Gospel, it will win your heart away from lust and to Love.
Rev. John Donne was a great poet and theologian, but that's not all he was: He was also a Giant of Sexual Lust. He womanized before his ordination, and thought about it all his life. He tried willpower and accountability groups, but they failed him, as they always do. Then he tried the Gospel-
Batter my heart, three-person'd God.
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
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