“Pay attention to the ancients, my son! The father of Proverbs spoke of broken bones: ‘A man who commits adultery rouses a husband’s fury.’ King Solomon spoke of love: ‘Rejoice in the wife of your youth – may you ever be captivated by her love.’ Jeremiah the prophet spoke of a broken nation with ‘lusty stallions, each neighing for another man’s wife.’
“Whether for healing a society, fostering love or avoiding a punch in the mouth, choosing faithfulness is the beginning of wisdom!”
Now I may just be talking to myself here, but…..
I rather like the story of Moses coming down from the mountain after receiving God’s laws. “Well,” he said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is I’ve got Him down to ten. The bad news is the one on adultery is IN.”
Good joke, but the fact is that it’s the biggest and baddest of bad news that our society, and many others, are choosing to leave ‘the one on adultery’ OUT when it comes to the way we live our lives, the way we educate our children, and the way we develop our laws. This is because ‘the one on adultery’ is like ‘the one on stealing’: it’s very simply stated but it has a vital biblical backstory behind it…
“You shall not commit adultery.” (Deuteronomy 5.18)
The Hebrew word for ‘to commit adultery’ has a very specific meaning. It means sex when either the man or the woman is married to someone else. It’s a commandment intended to protect the marriage bond – one of no less than three of the Ten Commandments that honour marriage.
Because yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s marriage that is the big, biblical backstory that lies behind ‘the one on adultery.’ ‘No coveting’ is a recipe for Global Stability, ‘no slander’ is a recipe for Human Dignity, ‘no thieving’ is a recipe for Financial Security – and the whole Bible makes it absolutely clear that ‘no adultery’ is a recipe for a Healthy Society.
To understand why this is true, we can’t start by talking about adultery, we have to start by talking about the big, biblical backstory of marriage. In fact we have to follow that famous advice again, from the song in ‘The Sound of Music’ : ‘Let’s start at the very beginning, because it’s a very good place to start.’ And when I say ‘the beginning’, I really mean ‘the beginning’! The first words of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, say this…
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1.1)
And right after He’d created everything else, He set about creating human beings…
“Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1.26)
But there’s more.
If all this is God’s work of art, then He’s also put His signature on it – and not so much ‘on it’, as woven into its fabric. It’s a signature that reflects His very character, not just in the substance of His creation but in a relationship that arises out of the substance of His creation…
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1.27)
God’s reason for creating “male and female” is firstly, because He wanted them to…
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1.28)
And secondly, because…
“It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”(Genesis 2.18)
None of the animals were suitable companions for the man, and so God created someone who was ‘the same but different.’ This person was a woman! The man expressed delight and fulfilment at this wonderful result!
“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2.23)
And we’re told that this ‘same but different’ quality is the basis of marriage, and the basis on which Mankind, as a whole, reflects the image of God – and right at the very end of the creation account, His ‘signature’ is made to stand out in bold relief…
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and the wife were both naked and they felt no shame.”(Genesis 2.24-25)
So let’s get this straight. Human beings – male and female united together – have a unique resemblance to God. As a pair, we are His ‘spitting image’! God can be met with, in all His maleness and femaleness, within the intricacies of a marriage, because a marriage relationship consists of a man and a woman. His character as a relationship-making God is reflected in the very nature of this deep and complex marriage bond.
And all of us have an inescapable part in this foundational relationship, whether as husband, wife or child.
Many other passages in Scripture stress the importance (and the heterosexual nature) of this key relationship, and the need to protect it.
In the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament, of the first nine chapters of The Book of Proverbs (which are an introduction to the whole book and to wisdom in general) two and a half chapters are devoted to warnings against committing adultery (Prov. 5.1-23 and 6.20 – 7.27). One whole book, The Song of Songs, is given over entirely to exploring the emotional and sexual relationship between a woman and her male lover. It wholeheartedly affirms sex and heterosexuality. Clearly, this marriage bond is to be treasured, enjoyed and safeguarded as a deep expression of the way we are made.
Jesus’ teaching on sex in His ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in The Gospel of Matthew again focuses on marriage. He clearly intends us to understand that the marriage bond is not to be broken or violated…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 6.27-28)
The same is true in His teaching about divorce later in the gospel. He quotes from Gen. 1.27 and 2.24 to emphasise that we are created “male and female” and that, once bound together in marriage, we should not be separated…
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5.32)
Significantly, Jesus later goes on to speak about the possibility of remaining unmarried and sexually inactive for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19.10-12).
Paul’s teaching on the marriage relationship in his letter to the Ephesians once again emphasises its heterosexual nature. Like Jesus, he quotes the creation account and he draws a direct comparison between marriage and the relationship Jesus has with the Church…
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church… ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. ” (Ephesians 5.22-33)
And this thought that marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church picks up an idea that runs all through the Old Testament – and then all the way to the end of the New.
God made human beings with the ability, just like Himself, to make relationships. In particular, at the heart of our ‘created-ness’, He made us able to form the deepest and most satisfying of relationships with someone who is ‘the same but different.’ And in the Books of Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, we discover a major reason why He gave us this marriage bond: it was so that He could use it to speak about the relationship there can be between us and Him – who are ‘the same’ (we are made in His image), ‘but different’ (we are human, He is divine)…
“The Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites…” (Hosea 3.1)
“‘Return, faithless people’ says the Lord, ‘for I am your husband…. like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me….'” (Jeremiah 3.14 and 20)
“The Sovereign Lord says (to His people)…’Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you…..and you became mine.'” (Ezekiel 16.8)
As well as Paul speaking of marriage as a picture of Christ and the Church, in The Gospel of John we hear John the Baptist comparing himself with Jesus…
“The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3.29-30)
And the Book of Revelation ends – and rounds off the whole Bible – with a vision of the Church of God as the Bride of Christ…
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband… ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb (Jesus).’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain, great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Revelation 21.1-2. 9-10)
The marriage bond, and the difference that God has made between the sexes, has a triple purpose. It is so that we can “be fruitful and increase in number”, it is to meet our deepest need for companionship, and it is a universal visual aid, built into creation, which speaks of the possibility of having a relationship with God. The marriage bond of one man and one woman really is the ‘signature’ of God woven into the very fabric of His creation.
But why doesn’t the commandment that deals with sex not simply say “You shall not have sex outside marriage”? Why isn’t it a prohibition of all extra-marital sex? After all, many other Old Testament laws, and the unanimous teaching of the New Testament, is that sexual activity of any kind outside marriage is wrong.
Well, it’s because this commandment, just like all the others, isn’t primarily about urging us to good individual moral behaviour for its own sake! These Ten Commandments are God’s protective ‘stop signs’ urging us not to do those things which cause the greatest damage to human society – and the sexual behaviour that damages society most seriously is the one that breaks marriages.
Not only did God create heterosexual marriage as a ‘built in’ feature of what it means to be human, but marriage itself creates all the other relationships in the whole inter-connected network that makes up every human community.
Marriage creates husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, great aunts and great uncles, step-parents and step-children, blood relatives and yes, relatives by marriage.
When a marriage bond is broken, it impacts on all these other relationships, causing various degrees of hurt, distress, division and resentment – and it shakes and weakens families and communities, just as a building would be shaken and weakened if its foundations were broken up.
If you read the family stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Samson and Hosea – to name only the famous ones – you’ll find that whenever they took multiple wives or broke these laws, bad stuff always followed.
These behaviours are not commended in the Bible, they are simply described. They are demonstrations of why God’s ‘stop signs’ are always needed!
So adultery not only breaks faith within the deepest of all personal relationships, it also disrespects the marriage bond that demonstrates the divine image in humanity, it obscures the picture that marriage gives us of the relationship we can have with God, and – into the bargain – it destabilises families and destroys communities!
The Book of Leviticus extends and elaborates on the ‘no adultery’ commandment by listing a series of unlawful sexual relations – and it’s clear that the intention behind all of these is to protect and maintain that wider network of relationships that have been created by marriage…
“No-one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the Lord. Do not dishonour your father by having sexual relations with your mother…. Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonour your father… Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter..(nor) with your son or daughter’s daughter… the daughter of your father’s wife… your father’s sister… your mother’s sister.. your uncle’s wife… your daughter-in-law… your brother’s wife… with both a woman and her daughter… with her close relatives… with your wife’s sister while your wife is living… with a woman during her monthly period… (and) Do not have sexual relations with your neighbour’s wife and defile yourself with her.” (Leviticus 18.6-20)
We should notice that all of these are specifically prohibited not only for the sake of those having the sex, but also for the sake of their spouses and other relatives, whether related by blood or not.
In addition, as we saw earlier, God made humankind “male and female”, and He made pro-creative marriage the foundational relationship that uniquely expresses His image. So to deliberately misuse sex outside that relationship, including with children (Leviticus 18.21), with your own sex (Leviticus 18.22) or with animals (Leviticus 18.23) – is a wilful distortion of a good gift that is part of God’s good intentions for humanity. It is to deliberately ‘scribble all over’ God’s ‘signature’ that He has carefully woven into creation.
Both chapters 18 and 20 of the Book of Leviticus make it clear that this destructive misuse of sex was characteristic of the nations that surrounded the Israelites of that time, and so God calls all – repeat all – of these practices “detestable things” – or as older translations have it “an abomination.” (Leviticus 18.26)
These laws are not about individual human rights! They actually tell us who not to have sex with so that the full range of other essential human relationships (including same sex friendships) can be enjoyed, and play their vital role in society, without always being potentially sexual. Where all relationships become potentially sexual, the wider web of relationships begin to break down, and society as a whole becomes coercive and abusive. We see this happening so clearly in so many societies today, that it’s actually quite surprising to find the Bible’s laws about sexual behaviour so widely regarded as unhelpful and inappropriate!
So what does Jesus and the rest of the New Testament have to say specifically about adultery, which the Ten Commandments pick out as the most serious and most damaging of sexual sins?
First of all, Jesus’ foundational teaching about the Law and the Old Testament is to be found in His foundational ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in The Gospel of Matthew…
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commandments will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.17-19)
And when He specifically speaks about adultery, He’s equally clear and uncompromising…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5.27-30)
Which, being translated, means: “Don’t even think about it!”
Jesus names adultery as sin on at least three other occasions (Matthew 15.19; 19.19; John 8.3); John the Baptist lost his life for pointing out king Herod’s sin of adultery (Mark 6.18); and Paul, in his letter to the Romans clearly affirms Jesus’ teaching, both on adultery and on how Law and Love relate to one another…
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.” (Romans 13.8-10)
Which, being translated, means: “A Christian loves others by at least obeying the commandments!”
And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews also pulls no punches…
“Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” (Hebrews 13.4)
As we imagine Jesus ‘blogging the Ten Commandments’ to our secular society – but starting at the bottom of the list and working back to the top – the protective effect of keeping these laws is crystal clear.
‘No coveting’ by individuals or nations would mean a much safer and more stable world. ‘No slander’ in personal or public life would mean a global increase in justice and hugely enhanced human dignity. ‘No thieving’ in private, corporate, national or international life would mean more widespread financial security.
No adultery, the honouring of the biblical backstory of marriage, and the limiting of sexual activity to the making and maintaining of marriage bonds, would mean ‘safe space’ everywhere for women, children and vulnerable adults, and ever-expanding possibilities of trust, loyalty and faithfulness in families, friendships and professional relationships. The improvement in emotional, physical and mental well-being would make for a healthier society that would be a joy to live in!
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