“Jesus’ Words About Sex” on Matthew 5:27-30 by Joe Ellis — October 16, 2022
When I started writing my sermon on Thursday, I felt like I needed to say everything there was to say about sex and sexuality. The sermon itself grew to be 50% longer than usual. By the end of it, I was struck by the fact that very little of what I said was based on what Jesus said in this passage. What I said reflected some biblical teaching, but it wasn’t really tied super closely to these words of Jesus.
There is a story in Luke 10:38-42 of two sisters who were hosting Jesus for a meal, one was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening deeply to His teaching, while the other was stressed out, running around trying to make every possible dish to make a good meal. That’s how I felt with this passage, that I had to make the best meal ever. My thought was that we don’t talk about sex and sexuality very often, that this is important, so I’d better get everything on the table while I have the chance.
So after I wrote that huge long sermon, and after Michelle said it needed work, I took a moment to reevaluate what I had said. I was surprised by the fact that Jesus doesn’t really say what I want him to say in this passage. Jesus doesn’t really say what I want Him to say anywhere. It’s surprising that Jesus doesn’t teach very directly about sex and sexuality throughout his whole ministry. We do, however, learn a whole lot about a healthy sexuality from seeing how He interacts with people when sex and sexuality are at play somewhere in the background. The story of Mary and Martha that I just mentioned is a great example. When He had dinner with those two women, we don’t know who else was there, but He apparently was quite comfortable in his masculinity to have deep relationships with these women. He evidently respected women quite a bit — enough for Him to sit down and teach women (this was a role most Rabbis considered beneath them – they didn’t think it was right to teach women). Even here, in this story of him teaching the two sisters, we see an invitation for us on how we might live out our own sexuality and gendered-ness in the church. We see that it is possible for men and women to have real and meaningful relationships with one another, to treat each other we respect, with appreciation and affection, and to learn from each other within the boundaries given to us.
Let’s keep looking at some other situations where sex and sexuality are in the foreground. If you’ve read through the Gospel of John, you’ll have noticed that Jesus relates wonderfully to people who have a complex history with sex and relationships. In his travels through Samaria in Chapter 4, He meets a woman who’s arrived at a well to get some water. Over the course of the conversation, Jesus lets her know that he’s aware that she’s had five husbands and the one she’s with now is a live-in boyfriend. We’ll talk about this more in two weeks. You’ll note that Jesus doesn’t really dive much deeper on this part of her history. He just mentions it as if to say in a kindly way, “I see you.” He takes this moment to say, “Realize that I know some of who you are, and I want you to know My Father, who is seeking you to worship Him in spirit and in truth.” Then He shares with her that He has authority to say this, because He is the Messiah. She’s so impacted by this encounter with Jesus that she begins evangelizing her whole town. This story reminds us that we don’t need to get all anxious around people with a complex history of relationships — addressing this history may or may not be the first item that Jesus is concerned about. Jesus’ heart was to invite her into relationship with His Father.
When Jesus does encourage people to repent from sexual sin, He does so with heartwarming grace and mercy. There’s another wonderful story in the eighth chapter of John. The Pharisees (the religious elite) bring in a woman caught in adultery. “Caught in the act,” the Pharisees say. Everyone knows she’s violating the seventh commandment, thou shalt not commit adultery. Note that Jesus also spoke about the seventh commandment in the passage we heard this morning. Although it was seldom practiced, the punishment for adultery was death by stoning. The Pharisees say, “This is the law, what should we do?” This is how Jesus responds. He bends down and begins writing in the sand, drawing people’s attention away from the poor woman. Finally, when everyone is looking at Him, Jesus stands up and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then He bends down again and keeps writing in the sand. One by one they leave, the oldest first, until no one is left. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir”. And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on don’t sin again.” This is a very important story to hear, especially in light of Jesus’ challenging words around the Seventh Commandment that we heard this morning. Did you notice how gentle and merciful Jesus was with this woman? He’s incredibly tender. Yet He also invites her to repent, saying, “Go and Sin no more.”
Christians have quite a hard time holding these two parts together. We have a hard time seeing how we can foster the church as a place for grace and forgiveness, but also how we can simultaneously say, “Go and sin no more.” This is an art that Jesus practices with so much grace. These stories are helpful to keep in mind as we listen to Jesus’ more challenging words about sex and sexuality.
Let’s now dial in a bit more on His direct teaching on sex and sexuality. Although Jesus himself never had sex, as He never married, in Matthew 19:4-5 He reiterates the beautifully positive vision of sex that you find in Genesis. He draws from the second chapter of Genesis when He says: “At the beginning, the creator made them male and female and said, 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 shapes the positive view with which He regards sex and is one of the reasons why He believes lifelong marriage to be so important. Sex by its nature is unifying. That, the Bible teaches, is one of the purposes of sex, it makes man and woman become one flesh. Another purpose is pleasure. God made sex to be wonderful, good and delightful. Go home and read The Song of Songs if you doubt me on that. The Song of Songs a collection of love poems in the Bible between a lover and his beloved. A final purpose of sex is that it is for having babies — again this goes back to the Creation story where God says to the first humans in Genesis 1:28 — “be fruitful and multiply.” But here, you can see I’m running ahead of what Jesus actually says. In Matthew 19, Jesus is primarily speaking about how sex unites men and women to be one flesh and how that bond endures a lifetime.
And then Jesus famously speaks about sex and sexuality in the passage that we heard this morning from Matthew 5. He brings up the seventh commandment, and He goes right to the heart. He says that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. We should notice that it’s the men who are on the hot seat this time. You might have noticed that it was only the woman that the Pharisees brought in to be stoned for adultery. There was a huge double standard around sexual ethics in the ancient times, as there still is now. In that culture, women were punished for sexual sin, not men. Men looked the other way when other men were caught up in sexual sin. “Don’t worry about it,” they’d say. Here, Jesus gets rid of the double standard and calls men directly to account. Here we find the core of Jesus’ teaching about controlling our sexuality — He says, outside of marriage, don’t look lustfully at people you are attracted to. Of course He would expect that it’s appropriate and good to look at the person your married to in a way that turns you on — He’s not throwing The Song of Songs out of the Bible. But not so outside the marriage relationship. Of course, you can appreciate that someone you’re not married to is beautiful and attractive, but that’s different than looking with lust. Men don’t need to be told what it is to look at someone with lust — we do need to be told not to do it. That’s precisely what Jesus says: “Stop it!” To underscore how serious He is, He says “If your right eye or right hand trips you up, tear it out or cut it off.” He’s not joking. Of course He upholds the seventh commandment that we shouldn’t commit adultery (namely, have sex with someone who’s not your spouse), but He goes deeper than that. He calls men to avoid the root behaviour that leads to adultery — don’t lust after people you’re attracted to. It’s like a slug creeping on a rose. It may seem harmless, but it will lead to destruction.
Aside from His words on divorce and remarriage, this is His most direct teaching on sex. Stop looking lustfully at people. I’m struck at how simple this is. It seems like it would be fairly easy to come up with a long list of “do’s and don't”s about sex. People have written books and books and books about it. But here Jesus just says, “You heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery, and I say to you everyone who gazes at a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” As men, we don’t do well with complex rules, so Jesus makes it very simple — stop looking at women lustfully.
Studies have shown that we don’t take even this one rule seriously. A 2014 study says that 77 percent of men between 18 and 30 view porn monthly. If you want to follow Jesus, but you currently have a practice of looking at porn — get serious about following Jesus and stop looking at porn. Porn takes our good desire for connection and intimacy with others and twists it in a way that causes us to view others as less than human, and causes us to be less than human ourselves. So get an accountability partner — someone that you call up to confess, “I just looked at porn.” Then they can say to you, “You are forgiven in the name of Jesus. You are covered by His blood.” Then they might talk to you about ways of helping you overcome this lust. I’d love to be person that for you if that would be helpful. Confession is the number one defence against looking at porn. Every time you look at a woman lustfully, call up your accountability partner and confess your sin — and receive forgiveness. The shame is taken away when you confess and receive forgiveness.
Jesus has basically that one rule — don’t gaze at people who aren’t your spouse in order to lust after them. And of course, from that rule, it changes the way that we interact with people that we’re attracted to outside of marriage. If we don’t lust with our eyes, it means we also don’t lust with our hands and mouths and bodies. But it starts with the eyes. This means we practice seeing people not as objects of sexual desire, but as real people, genuine people, precious people made in the image of God. We treat them as such with our eyes and our bodies. Again, Jesus’ project in the Sermon on the Mount is to show us how to recover our lost and fallen humanity — it begins with the way that we look at each other. Jesus says to take this teaching incredibly seriously — ignoring it starts us down a road that leads to destruction.
That mostly sums up what Jesus says about sex and sexuality. I’ve been surprised by how little else Jesus says about these things, and how what He does say is really quite simple. There is no long laundry list about sexual sins, how to avoid them, and what a godly sexuality looks like. How is it that a topic that gets so much airtime in our culture and in Christian circles, gets so little airtime by Jesus. Why doesn’t He say all the things we want Him to say? Of course, the Bible does say more on the subject, and we don’t want to pin the Bible and Jesus against each other. But on a topic that’s so important, why doesn’t Jesus say more about these things?
I think we might get part of the answer in the seventh chapter of Mark. Here in v. 20-23, Jesus makes the point quite clearly: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” For Jesus, what matters is getting the heart right. Some people take the fact that Jesus doesn’t say much about sex and sexuality as a sign He doesn’t care about sex or sexuality. This is just not true. He doesn’t say much about sex or sexuality because what is important is to get the heart right. Get the heart right and everything else falls into place. If we get our heart in order all those other things He mentions will fall away or take their proper shape. So Jesus draws our attention away from the big physical outward actions, and focuses instead on activities that restore our heart. So He doesn’t focus on the outward action of murder, He focuses on how to mend an angry heart. He doesn’t focus on the outward action of adultery, He focuses on mending a lustful heart by changing what we do with our eyes. Jesus invites us into practices that cultivate a healthy heart. Jesus is sure that as we practice everything He says, our heart will be restored in the process. The end result is not a heart that despises all sex and denies one’s sexuality. The end result is a heart that channels sex and sexuality in the beautiful and delightful way God intended them to be.
So, Jesus doesn’t give us a huge laundry list of things to do or not to do so that we can turn into some asexual beam of light. He instead invites us to focus on our heart. He invites us to cultivate a pure heart. Of course our heart will be shaped by what we do or don’t do sexually with our body, or whether or not we make a practice of consuming porn, but our heart will primarily be shaped through a life of prayer, of fasting, of reading or listening to Scripture, of reconciling with our enemy, of truth telling, of non-judging, trusting God to provide, and a life of loving and being loved. These and others shape our heart.
In doing what Jesus says, we then learn how to be with people in the same way that Jesus related to women and men. His interactions model a healthy sexuality for us — that’s why it’s so important to hear those stories I began with about how Jesus related to women. As we follow Jesus and His way, we discover that the project of developing a wholesome sexuality is a side project. The main project is renovating our heart. If we set our heart on God’s Kingdom and His way of life, all these other things will be given to us as well.