Take your Bibles, please, and turn with me to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians; 1 Corinthians chapter 7. We're reading verses 1 to 5 on page 955 in the church Bibles. Now a cursory glance at the direct and pointed discussion of marital union that we find in our passage will immediately reveal to you that the author could not possibly have come from the British Isles. This is a passage I have been dreading since we began 1 Corinthians and so here at last it is. It is, let's be clear, a very open discussion of a very intimate and delicate subject, so get ready! I'm really not trying to make the car ride home with your children difficult; I promise. It's just what's next in the passage, okay? And I'll do my best to spare your blushes and mine as we work through the material. But we need to work through the material not least because if you don't think your children or your neighbors or the people sitting next to you are being bombarded every day from television screens and internet and social media and from friends and peers with a very different picture of what sex and sexuality looks like, you're not paying attention. We badly need to hear in our particular cultural moment clear teaching on sex and sexuality from the Word of God. We need someone saying in our ear behind us, "This is the way, walk in it." Don't we? We badly need to hear a clear voice giving us wholesome direction from the Word of God.
If you look at verse 5, you will see at the end of verse 5 that the apostle Paul realizes that at Corinth this whole area of sex and sexuality was a major battleground and one of the favorite targets Satan was using to wreak havoc in their lives. And we ought to be clear, it is also a major battlefield in the spiritual war where Satan comes against us today as well. We need the Word of God to speak to this subject. After having spent part of chapter 5 and the second half of chapter 6 dealing with sexual immorality in different ways, sex distorted and perverted by sin, Paul turns now in chapter 7 to give us a positive picture. So he's given us the negative picture with some important correctives; now he offers a positive picture. Here are sex and sexuality in the beauty of God's design.
Remember last time at the end of chapter 6, Paul addressed the problem of some of the members of the Corinthian church whose view of sex was so liberal and unconstrained they were actually visiting the temple prostitutes who plied their trade in that great pagan city. So there was a faction in the church at Corinth we might call “liber-teams.” And they had a slogan. You remember what it is – “All things are lawful for me.” That is what they were saying. “Anything goes.” And then there was another group who seemed to be in reaction to them, overreacting really. And they also have a slogan; you see it in verse 1 of our passage. They have swung all the way to the opposite extreme and so there slogan is, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” It’s not a very catchy slogan, I’ll grant you. I can’t imagine it was all that popular as a catch phrase for their particular party, but nevertheless, that sums up their teaching. And so you see, don't you, you see the two extremes. On the one side, there's a kind of unguarded sexual promiscuity and on the other, there was a kind of prudish hostility towards sex altogether. They saw it as dirty and unworthy of a Christian and always to be avoided.
But taken together, chapter 6 and 7 present a Christian vision of human sexuality that actually defies both extremes, holding out to us instead a beautiful picture of sexual union within the bonds of Christian marriage that is at once affirming, even celebratory, of sex and sexuality while at the same time carefully locating it all within God-given bounds. And that is a message that could not be more relative or urgent for the days in which we live. And so as we prepare to hear the Word of God read to us and preached, I want to invite you if you would please to bow your heads with me as we pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to help us receive the teaching of God’s Word. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, we badly need to hear Your voice, so now we pray that Your Holy Spirit would come work in our hearts and on our minds and teach us and discipline us and redirect us and train us in righteousness and enable us as we cling to Jesus with happy and joyful hearts to live for Your glory, even in this area of sex and sexuality that is so fraught with danger and is such a persistent battlefield, an area of stumbling for so many. How we need You to come and minister to us precisely here. So we thank You for Your Word and we pray for ears to hear what Your Spirit says to the church, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 7 at verse 1. This is the Word of God:
“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.
Sometimes the Bible is like the smallest kid on the basketball team, you know? Everyone underestimates him and he loves to defy expectations. 1 Corinthians chapter 7:1-5 is one of those places I think the Bible defies expectations. The apostle Paul is going to speak to us about sex and sexuality and so we sort of get set for a lecture entitled something like this, “Ten Reasons Why Sex is Bad and We Should Not Talk About It: by Paul the Prude.” That’s what we’re expecting; that’s not at all what we find in these opening five verses, is it? Here is a positive, deeply affirming vision of sexual union within the bonds of Christian marriage. He’s going to give us three ways to think about sex and sexuality here that I think we badly need to get ahold of. First of all, he’ll talk to us about sex and defense. Sex as defense. Then secondly, sex as debt. And then finally, sex as devotion. So defense and debt and devotion.
Sex as Defense
Think about sex as defense here first of all. The Corinthian believers were situated, you remember, in the middle of a profoundly hedonistic society – not all that unlike our own in many respects. And some of them, not unlike some of us, found it very hard to resist the gravitational pull of their permissive, “anything goes,” sexually permissive culture. But there were others, as we noted a few moments ago, who overreacted and the pendulum swung for them to the opposite extreme. And so they were saying, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman – period. No sex. We’re Christians. That’s the path of godliness.” That was their point of view. And just to be clear, if you’ll look at our passage down to verses 6 and 7, look ahead just a little, Paul is going to argue that celibate singleness is indeed a particular gift that God gives to some people. Some people; not all people. And so in verse 2 and again in verse 5 – so bracketing our section, you see that in verses 2 and 5 – Paul is very clear that attempting celibacy without the gift and call of God to a single life is actually to open oneself to temptation and sin. Verse 2, “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Or look at verse 5. Married couples, Paul says, “are not to neglect sexual intimacy except for a season, then only by mutual agreement. And they’re to come back together again,” notice, “so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Neglecting sexual union within marriage is actually to expose oneself to all sorts of temptation. And Paul is saying a major defense given by God against sexual sin is sex as God always ordained that it ought to be.
Do notice, if you would, the strong affirmation here of the place of marriage. In the face of the Corinthians adultery and fornication, verse 2, “Each man should have his own wife; each woman her own husband.” The lifelong union of one man and one woman in marriage, Paul says, is the only appropriate venue and context for sexual intimacy. And within that context, God has ordained that sexual intimacy should strengthen and protect each partner from the temptations of the Devil who twists and distorts sex into something selfish and perverse and shameful. Now let’s face it, as we said, sex is the great spiritual battleground of our age. Wouldn’t you agree with that? It is one of Satan’s favorite avenues of attack. I dare say he has a very high success rate ensnaring many, even those who profess to follow Jesus, with sexual sin. And so Paul is saying that a healthy sexual intimacy within marriage is a vital defense ordained by God against Satan’s attacks. So that’s the first thing we need to see here. Sex as defense. A healthy sex life within a loving, Christian marriage is part of a Christian’s armor in the spiritual war against the enemy of our souls; a battle in which we are engaged every day. Sex as defense.
Sex as Debt
Then notice what Paul says secondly about sex as debt. Look at verses 3 and 4. “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another.” Now it is crucially important as we tackle these verses to notice both sides of Paul’s teaching. If we fail to do that, we will distort his message badly, even dangerously. When we understand what Paul is saying we will see it’s actually quite revolutionary, particularly in the context within which he was writing. Notice first in verse 3 that Paul addresses husbands about the conjugal rights of the wife. Now that flies directly in the face of Jewish tradition and Greco-Roman culture in those days that privileged the husband’s rights above the wife’s every single time. But Paul starts here, doesn’t he, by affirming the woman’s rights and he commands husbands to respect those rights. And then he says the same applies for the wife regarding her husband. Each is to understand the other has rights in this whole area.
The Rights of the Other
Now that is really very important to get clear. He places the obligation upon us to think of the rights of the other rather than to stand upon our own perceived rights and make demands of the other. A couple of months ago I used an illustration in a different part of Paul's teaching as we've worked through 1 Corinthians together and I said, you may remember, that in pre-marital counseling I'll often talk with young couples about the four fault lines that tend to run through most marriages. And we talked about money, sex, in-laws, and children. Over and over again, they become points of friction and tension in marriage. And Paul here actually is helping us understand why sex and sexuality might be one of those major points of friction. When one partner demands his or her rights at the expense of the others, pain, grief, tension, distance intrudes upon the relationship. But Paul gives absolutely no quarter to that kind of behavior here. Instead, he is saying our attitude should be one of service. We are to serve our partner; to give to them for their sake rather than demand what we believe is our due.
And so he says, verse 4, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but the husband does.” If we left it there, we would be clearing the way for all sorts of misogyny and abuse, wouldn’t we? But then Paul immediately asserts that likewise “The husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” In a largely patriarchal society, where women were considered virtual second-class citizens, that is an amazing statement. Neither partner has absolute authority over themselves. Each has a claim upon the other so that love, in the bonds of marriage, brings each partner to a place of servant-heartedness, seeking what is best for their spouse. Paul even says at the beginning of verse 5, “Do not deprive one another.” The word he uses is interesting. You could translate it, “Do not defraud one another.” He’s conceiving of marriage as a debt, as something that is owed to one another, as sexual intimacy in marriage rather as a debt that is owed; a sacred obligation designed by God for the good of both partners in marriage.
Allow me to put it this way. Not to shatter all the romance of the thing you understand, but just for the sake of clarity, Paul is teaching us that ordinarily sex within marriage is a Christian duty. It’s a debt that we owe. And the way that he speaks about it, there’s something profoundly Christ-like here in this pattern of mutual service and self-giving that Paul describes. Christ, you remember, gave Himself for His bride, giving Himself up for her. That is how He loves His bride, the Church. He does not stand on His rights but voluntarily surrenders them for the good of His bride. The devil, you will remember, tempted Him precisely at this point. He took Him, Matthew chapter 4 verse 6, to the highest point of the temple. Told Him, “Throw yourself down. After all, the Scripture says, ‘God will command His angels concerning you and in their hands they will bear you up that your foot will not strike a stone.’ So go on, Jesus, stand on your rights and demonstrate to the world who you really are.” But Jesus did not stand on His rights, but rather relinquished them, submitting to God, rebuking the devil. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
And that was His pattern throughout His earthly ministry. He would surrender His prerogatives, taking the form, as Paul puts it in Philippians 2:7, “taking the form of a slave” for the sake of the Church; emptying Himself. There’s a Gospel pattern Paul is saying then in marriage. Even within sexual union within marriage – of self-giving for the good of the other; of surrendering for the good of the other. Not demanding. Not standing on what we perceive to be our due. Sex, Paul says, is a beautiful thing, part of God’s design that dramatizes and pictures the Gospel itself when it is rightly ordered in God’s economy. Sex as defense. Sex as debt.
Sex as Devotion
Then finally, notice what Paul says here about sex as devotion. Look at verse 5 again. “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control." In our sexually broken world, many of us are carrying deep scars. Some of us enter marriage with all kinds of emotional baggage that we are carrying; all kinds of vulnerabilities, all sorts of wounds and fears. Sometimes our marriages become disordered by our sin and our failure to live according to God's pattern. And given the complexities of all of that, there are various, valid circumstances in which sexual intimacy in a marriage may not be appropriate for a season. Anyone who takes Paul's teaching here in these five verses as warrant to demand what should be given as an act of loving service distorts the Scriptures in dangerous ways. There is no place for the kind of abusive demands that sometimes find their way even into Christian marriages. But then neither is there any place for manipulative withholding of sexual union for selfish or spiteful ends that also sometimes finds its place even in Christian marriages.
The One Exception
“Do not deprive one another.” That’s the normal pattern of a healthy, loving marriage, but Paul does make one exception. You see it in the text; it’s fascinating and actually very challenging. He says that a couple may break off their intimacy for a season, only by mutual agreement notice, in order to focus in a sustained way on prayer. The word translated in our version, “a limited time,” has the idea of a season of some special significance with limits to it. There’s some unusual circumstance of special seriousness that is calling the husband and the wife to a sustained season of focused prayerfulness. I think what Paul has in mind here is somewhat analogous to a fast from food. When we fast, we are saying to God, “Just as food is necessary for my bodily sustenance, You are even more necessary to the welfare of my soul. I need You more than my daily bread.” That’s what we’re saying. And so we give up food for a specific season to pray and to cry to the Lord to answer us and to draw near to us.
And in the same way, I think Paul is suggesting that sexual union, so necessary and normative for marital intimacy, can be set aside for a time so that the couple may pray together as a way to say, “Even more than we need one another, we need You, O Lord.” But whatever you make of that, it is clear – this much at least is very clear – the apostle Paul expects Christian couples to be praying together. Doesn’t he? He expects them to understand that there is a higher claim upon their marriage that may even at times intrude upon their regular routine and cause them to reorder their priorities than their own perceived physical needs. The Lord Jesus has prior claim on your marriage. Your marriage is for Him. I wonder if you pray together, those of you who are Christians and are married. Do you pray together? Do you find ways in which to give honor to Jesus Christ? Would someone, a non-Christian looking in, if they had a spy-cam on the wall in your home without any sound, could they observe from the way you behave and from the rhythm of your life that you are children of God for whom Jesus Christ has first claim above every other? Is your marriage a distinctively Christian marriage? Does Jesus Christ reign as Lord between you and over you and in your home?
Pleasing to God
There are situations, Paul is saying, when sexual intimacy should be set aside. But notice even then the physical separation is never to be permanent. Satan, Paul understands, is looking for any and every opportunity to undermine and disrupt and to shatter Christian marriages. Don’t pretend to be so spiritual that you can neglect sex with your spouse. Or don’t use your piety as a way to cover the deeper problems in your marriage that lead you to avoid sexual intimacy with your spouse altogether. No, for Paul, instead of marital sex being some sort of distraction from godliness, some intrusion into the Christian life, he is in fact teaching us here, isn’t he, that sexual union in marriage is normally a part of Christian devotion that is itself pleasing to God, glorifying to Him, and beautiful in His sight. So come together again, verse 5, “that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Witness to the World
Let me end with this. I am persuaded one of the best witnesses we can offer our confused, soul-sick society that is careening headlong into ever-increasing sexual chaos and confusion, one of the best ways we can bear witness in that society is to display humble, servant-hearted, Gospel-shaped, tender, intimate, lifelong, enduring Christian marriages where there are no controlling, abusive demands; where there is no belittling manipulation. But where instead there is joyful intimacy and sexual wholeness, which in Paul’s mind is part of sexual holiness, pleasing in the sight of God and honoring to Him. While the world thinks that Christians are sexually repressed prudes, obsessed with the sex we’re not allowed to have, how we need to recover a Biblical vision that delights in God’s wonderful design for the joyful union of one man and one woman in marriage for life. When we begin not only to believe that but live it, by the grace of God, what a testimony we will bear, how counter-cultural we will be, and what a beautiful thing it will be to see how the Gospel reorders our lives, and the world may know it can reorder theirs also by looking at us.
So sex as a defense – an important defense against Satan’s attacks. Sex within marriage. Sex between two believers in the bonds of Christian marriage Paul also says is a sacred debt, an obligation that we owe our spouses that is characterized and shaped and directed by the pattern of the Gospel where neither stands on their own rights but seeks to serve and care for the other. And sex within the bonds of Christian marriages is a form of Christian devotion, glorifying to God and well-pleasing to Him. May the Lord help us and give us grace at a time when this is the battlefield where Satan is opposing the people of God. May God give us grace to shine and bear witness to the world of what the Gospel can do. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we do confess to You that these are uncomfortable things and we, all of us, need Your grace to walk in obedience amidst the countless temptations and distortions of the world in this area. Would You help us? Would You help Christian families, Christian marriages, to begin to be modeled around and shaped by the Gospel and grant that the higher claims of King Jesus would begin to reorder and reconfigure our priorities that living for Him would be obvious and self-evident to all who observe us. How we need Your grace. How far from that we often are. Please, would You forgive us and help us and change us that You might use us, among our neighbors and friends and in our community for Your praise and glory, that they would, looking at us, they would come and say, "Why are you the way you are? How is it that your marriage is the way that it is? Where does that come from?" And we might say, "It does not come from ourselves, but it is the gift of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ." Would You give us such opportunities and work in us to that great and glorious end? For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
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