(Note: I have made my sons and grandsons co-owners of this blog. From time to time they may decide to post an article. The following is from my grandson James Jordan. He wrote it in response to a question from a woman named Rena.)
To Rena’s prompt: “What did Jesus say about premarital sex? The church’s obsession with premarital sex has always bothered me.”
Important topic, Rena – Jesus didn’t say nearly as much about sex as you’d expect from many church youth group messages (a lot of pressure on church leaders to keep teenage pregnancies down!!). My question is, why? Does Jesus not talk about sexual morality a lot because he didn’t care about it, or for some other reason? Also important, with what tone did Jesus communicate to those deemed sexually immoral in his time and place – rudely, understandingly, condemningly, hopefully, obsessively (as you mention), peacefully…?
The Woman at the Well – Striking The Right Tone
There are two times Jesus comes into close contact with pre/extramarital sex. The first is with the woman at the well (John 4:1-42). In a gentle and understanding conversation, Jesus gets close to a woman who was isolated and outcast from her neighbors because of her sexual past. Jesus offers her permanent spiritual refreshment – ‘living water’ – and then suggests she get her husband so both can quench their thirst forever.
She says, “I have no husband.” Then, in a surprise, Jesus lets on that he knew this all along. “You are right…The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” So the Samaritan woman at the well was currently in a relationship involving premarital sex. This passage has no direct indications on whether Jesus will have sexual morals for his followers. What is interesting here is Jesus’s tone.
“I have no husband,” the Samaritan woman said. “You have had five, and you’re living with someone you’re not married to now,” Jesus returns. Now was the Samaritan woman dishonest with Jesus? No, but she was very guarded and vague. She avoided volunteering the number of men in her past or providing clear statement about the status of her current relationships.
That’s just the sort of vague, cagey way people communicate when they’re tired of being judged for their relationship status – whether they know they’ll be called “whore” or considered as pathetic for being single, they either lie or find a way to give a misleading minimum of information without speaking a falsehood. But Jesus, knowing what was in people’s hearts, knew all about the woman at the well’s slutty past and yet did not slut-shame her. If the moral-majority’s favorite address for the licentious is slut-shaming, they should look to John 4 for an important alternative: meeting sexually compromised people where they are, showing interest in their life stories, then offering something far more fulfilling instead.
The Woman “Caught” In Adultery – Sexual Sin Is Still Sin
Jesus’s second run-in with sexual sin comes when a woman allegedly caught in adultery is brought to him (John 8:1-11). The religious leaders say, in effect “Moses’s laws command us to stone such adulterous women: do you agree, Jesus?” The catch was, as it says, “they were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.” This is a tricky passage to bring up and it could backfire on me. But, if you are interested in this, will you bear with me? Will you examine it closely?
What does Jesus do? Instead of giving a straightforward answer, he begins writing on the ground with his finger, then he says “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone to kill her.”
At first glance, my lustful desires jump to the conclusion, “Jesus just said that sexual sin will not be punished – might as well say that there is no such thing as sexual sin anymore!”
But then I am immediately shut down. Jesus then dismisses the woman caught in adultery. With no one remaining to condemn her, Jesus sends her on her way saying, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
When I read this, I have to stop in my tracks. Jesus speaks to this woman caught in immorality as if they both know exactly what the “life of sin” is. But if Jesus had eliminated sexual morality as a moral category – if Jesus wanted nothing to be forbidden sexually anymore – wouldn’t Jesus have said “Go, now, enjoy yourself,” for example? He wouldn’t have mentioned anything at all about leaving a life of sin.
We take, then, 2 things from this tricky passage. One, that the main point of the story can’t be about Jesus revolutionizing the sexual morals from the Old Testament. It could very well be Jesus’s abilities to see through the intellectual traps of the Pharisees; it could also be Jesus’s insistence that the laws of Moses be applied fully and consistently if the Pharisees were going to apply them at all (shouldn’t there have been an adulterous man caught also, if the woman was caught in the act of adultery?). There are many different sermons with different deductions and takes on John 8:1-11 and I know quite a few have shown me something valuable.
Second, that the category of sexual sin was basically understood in the same way by Jesus and the woman allegedly caught in adultery. “Go now and leave your life of sin,” Jesus said, and he could expect this woman to understand what he meant. Now this is interesting: how would Jesus, son of God, genius moral teacher and this nameless sinful woman “caught in adultery” share a similar understanding of sexual standards? The only plausible answer is that the sexual standards that were revealed and taught to Jesus and this woman were the same, coming from the same place, taught to all Hebrew children in fact. They were the sexual standards of the Old Covenant, the Hebrew Scriptures which Jesus came “not to abolish but fulfil.”
Why Rehash Sex Laws, If We Already Agree?
Now this idea brings us back to the original question; “Why does Jesus in the Gospels not say much about sexual morality, if He does indeed care about it?” The answer being that the Jews Jesus lived among during his 3-year ministry basically agreed with Jesus on sexual morality. Little need to talk about it if there’s little disagreement; there were plenty of important disagreements to have and new revelations to share. Jesus focused on communicating new revelations – i.e. the Kingdom of God, His identity as Son of God – and counteracting Jewish corruptions – the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, their “hate your enemy” pattern as opposed to a “pray for those who persecute you” ethic, and their refusal to see and believe in him as their Messiah.
Divine-Level Understanding of Sex & Marriage
Very well, very well. But isn’t that a little too convenient and glib, concluding that Jesus fully agreed with the Jewish sexual ethics of the Old Testament since he didn’t talk about them much? Yes, it is a little too fast, and searching it out thoroughly really brings us to some of the most precious insights the Bible has on sexual relationships.
If the Creator of the World, of male and female from the beginning, were to enter into our history, would we expect simple agreement with the mere mortal teachers he informed? Or would we expect the Only Wise God to have a higher and clearer understanding, unprecedented insights and predictions, of what it means to be married as man and woman and becoming one flesh?
And so Jesus did. He saw the original design of marriage clearer than all, so he could answer with authority over the Pharisees in a synthesis which explained the original, perfect design of human marriage and the later circumstantial concession to the hard-heartedness of humans and sinful ways (Matt 19:3-9):
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
If the searcher of hearts were to explain the core evil of lust to us, wouldn’t he explain it in the most thoroughgoing way possible? (Matt 5:27-30):
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
When the one who will come riding in on the clouds of glory speaks to questions about relationships and marriages in the next life, he speaks as if he knows what is to come (Matt. 22:25-33):
25Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27After them all, the woman died. 28In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”
29But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.
The Gentiles Get Filled In
And last (for this piece), when Gentiles, who do not have the same sexual mores as the Jews, are brought into the fold of the Church, we would expect them to receive enormous amounts of biblical instruction, correction, clarification? And so it is when we come to Paul – somewhere I have read that sexual sin is the among the top two most referenced sins in the New Testament. The catchall word for it is porneia (“sexual indecency”) and you hear Paul explaining that this applies to both passive and active partners in homosexual sex, you hear that some in the church were wrongly practicing incest of a sort even the pagans frowned upon. We notice an extensive overlap between the Old Testament list and what Paul is categorizing as sexual sin. In regards to porneia, expecting a comprehensive list of these sins doesn’t work because… humans could be endlessly inventive in conjuring up less-than-holy ways to relieve their sexual desires.
But as to the particularly pressing question of premarital sex, a clear Old Testament statement comes as early as Exodus 22:16 “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.” It wasn’t rape, which was punishable by death, and it wasn’t necessarily the beginning of a marriage either– the seducing man could get stuck without a wife, but with a hefty bride-price fine. Fast-forward to the New Testament, and we see in 1 Corinthians 7 that the acceptable options are 1) unmarried or 2) no sex. You can’t cool yourself down with a little premarital/extramarital sex – if you need sex, get married! “8To the unmarried and the widows I say (…) if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
2 thoughts on “Why Teach so Little on Sex, Jesus?”
This is a loaded question about a very difficult subject. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, James. I am going to deal with Sex and the Bible from another point of view in a soon to be published blog entitled “Male and Female.”
Looking forward to it Sandy!