God & Sex (1): A Picture of Sin and Union With Christ
Ezekiel 16.4-60, Ephesians 5.25-31
Every year before the summer we take a break in our regular series to do a mini-series on whatever happens to be the most common question or situation or problem we’ve met in the church over the last year. And as it so happens, this year, by far the most pressing question or situation people in the church have come up against has been the question of sex.
We’ve talked about sex before, but never in the kind of detail we’ll be seeing it in the next couple of weeks.
But before we get started, I want to preemptively answer a question some of you may be asking. Why is sexuality such a particularly big deal for Christians? Is sexual sin a “bigger sin” than the others?
The answer, of course, is no—sin is sin. So if sexual sin isn’t a worse sin than any others, why are we singling sex out?
There are a few reasons:
1. In our culture, sex is everywhere. We live in an extremely sexually-heightened culture, in which sex is used for everything from pleasure to procreation to sales. You would think that the church would be a kind of bubble against this sexual invasion, but it’s not. In our own church over the last year, the biggest questions we have had by far have concerned sex: pornography, adultery, living together before marriage, and dating—what to do with sex before marriage. This is every bit as big an issue for the church as for those outside.
2. Secondly (and this is something many of us don’t think of), it’s not just a question of sin. Sex, at its root, is a gift God has given human beings. And it’s a gift he has given indiscriminately, regardless of your religion, where you were born, or what your culture is. So we need to talk about how God intends us to enjoy this all-pervasive gift rightly.
3. The Bible takes sexuality very, very seriously. Every time the Bible talks about sex—good sex and bad sex—it is always a very serious subject: a subject of great joy when it is done rightly (cf. Song of Solomon) and of serious condemnation when it is done wrongly (cf. Matthew 5.27-32).
So here’s what we’re going to do. Before we get to the practical details of what Christian sexuality looks like, we’re going to have to spend some time asking some more fundamental questions about why sex is the way it is, and for whom sex exists.
That’s what we’ll see today.
Why did God make sex fun?
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of this, but I’m a fan of science fiction, so questions like this pop up without warning in my head: God created the world, right? He created human beings. So why did he make sex the way he did? Obviously human beings would need some means of reproducing; but God didn’t need to make it so great. He could have made the act of reproduction as basic as breathing. We all need to breathe to live; but none of us derives intense physical pleasure from the act of breathing in and out (unless we’ve just almost drowned).
Practically no one in any culture is obsessed with any act the way human beings are obsessed with sex. And that is because sex is perhaps the most intensely enjoyable physical experience one can have without any outside (i.e. pharmaceutical) help. Why did God make it that way? Why did he make sex this intensely enjoyable?
Surprisingly, perhaps, the Bible never shies away from the question of sex. It is not afraid of using sexually explicit metaphors, or of speaking frankly about sex. And even more, when we ask ourselves why God created sex the way he did, the Bible gives us an answer to that question.
When you read the Bible, it's important to remember that God teaches us through his Word in a variety of ways: not just through the content of the Bible, or the meaning of the words, but also in the way he chooses to reveal things to us. God is the most accomplished pedagog in the universe—he knows not just what to teach us, but how.
And sometimes, the Bible gives us answers to difficult questions not just through the what, but through the how. Or, to put it another way, he can decide to structure his Word in such a way that he teaches us two things at once—the content can teach us one thing, whereas the means of communicating that content can teach us something else.
That’s why the answer to our question is going to require some work: it’s found not just in the what, but in the how. So get ready to think hard (if you need it, there’s coffee in the back).
Adultery: A Picture of Sin (Ezekiel 16.4-41)
Go with me to Ezekiel 16. This is, perhaps, one of the most tragic chapters in the whole Bible. In this chapter God presents us with a metaphor of his relationship with his people.
Let’s read, beginning at v. 4 (he’s speaking to the people of Israel):
4 And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. 5 No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.
So at first, the image he gives is that of a man who finds an abandoned baby: a baby who has basically been ripped from her mother’s womb and cast out into the dirt. So what does he do upon finding this child?
6 “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ 7 I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.
So God miraculously nurtures this child so that not only does she not die, she flourishes. She grows to be healthy and beautiful. And he continues by cleaning her wounds and wiping away all trace of the abuse that was inflicted upon her in the past:
8 “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. 9 Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. 10 I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk.
And it goes on: he gives her bracelets and earrings and a crown, gold and silver—he lavishes gifts upon her.
In other words, this is the point where God becomes no longer a generous benefactor, but a merciful bridegroom. God makes a covenant with this abandoned peasant girl, and in so doing makes her a part of his family—he cleanses her wounds, and gives her new clothes, and anoints her with oil. He treats her as a king would treat his queen if she were mistreated. He ends in v. 14:
14 And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.
As you’ve probably figured out, this story is a metaphor. The woman, the bride, symbolizes God’s people, Israel.
What the man does for this woman in the story is what God did for his people—although they had done nothing to deserve his affection, he took them, and made them whole again, and lavished his grace on them, and made them his own.
The tragedy comes when the focus switches from the husband’s behavior to the bride’s. V. 15:
15 “But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his.
To put it plainly, she cheats on him every chance she can get. All the gifts the husband had given to his bride, she takes off, and uses them to entice other men to come to her. And her perversity reaches its climax in v. 23:
23 “And after all your wickedness (woe, woe to you! declares the Lord God), 24 you built yourself a vaulted chamber and made yourself a lofty place in every square. 25 At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passerby and multiplying your whoring.
So get this picture in your head (it’s an incredibly graphic picture): the beloved wife of the king, who is alive today only because of him, who has received everything good she has from his hand, uses his gifts to her to entice men to her. She builds a chamber for her sexual activities, and calls random men in from off the street to come and sleep with her, like a prostitute. But, God says, she takes it even further than a prostitute, v. 30:
30 “How sick is your heart, declares the Lord God, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute… 31b Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment. 32 Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! 33 Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings.
A prostitute who sells herself for money is more honorable than this woman, because not only does this woman not receive payment for her “whoring”—she actually pays these other men to sleep with her. She even gives them as payment her own children for them to sacrifice to their gods.
This is terribly grim. And given today’s subject, it would be tempting to assume that this passage is condemning this kind of perverse sexual immorality. But we have to note a couple of things.
Firstly, just as the woman is a symbol of God’s people, Israel, the “whoring” of the adulterous woman is a symbol too: the picture he’s using is of sexual sin, but it’s symbolizing something bigger.
It’s a symbol of idolatry. He makes this clear in the passage: the woman “plays the whore” with “the Egyptians,” and with “the Assyrians,” and “with the trading land of Chaldea.”
If you’ve read the Old Testament, what he’s talking about will be immediately clear. The people of Israel constantly struggled to stay faithful amongst the pagan nations around them—they were constantly mixing devotion to the one true God with devotion to the false gods of all these other nations. They’d worship the one true God, sure, but they’d also worship all these other false gods.
We have to understand the idolatry of the people of Israel, because what they did is exactly what happens in our own hearts, all the time. Idolatry, simply put, is letting anything else take God’s place in our hearts and lives.
And that is the very definition of sin. All sin is idolatrous. In every sin, we are telling God in that moment, “You are not the God of this part of my life.” Some sins may have a tighter grip on us than others, but every sin, in the moment we give in to temptation, is idolatrous.
Here’s the point: in this passage God is not talking about sexual sin—he is painting a picture of all sin, using the language of sexual perversity and adultery to help us understand how disgusting it is.
We have married men here—husbands, think about it. What would you feel if your wife, whom you love more than any woman in the world, left you to do what this woman did? To build a chamber and call men in off the street and pay them to have sex with her, over and over and over again? What would that do to you?
We don’t want to think about it; it hurts to consider it, even for a moment. And that emotional gut-punch we feel when we think about it… That is how we should feel about our sin. That’s the way God feels about the sin of his people.
And so, in the story, the husband’s response is severe: God passes judgment on his adulterous wife, v. 35:
35 “Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the Lord: 36 Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness. 38 And I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy. 39 And I will give you into their hands, and they shall throw down your vaulted chamber and break down your lofty places. They shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful jewels and leave you naked and bare. 40 They shall bring up a crowd against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords. 41 And they shall burn your houses and execute judgments upon you in the sight of many women.
The terrifying reality, in this context, is that God is just. He is not only wounded by the sin of his people; he is angered by the sin of his people, and rightly so—wouldn’t you be, if you were the husband? If sin really is that serious—and it is—then a God who is just will absolutely and by necessity exercise swift and harsh judgment against that sin.
That is a horribly sobering thought. But thank God, that is not all there is.
Sex in Marriage: A Picture of the New Covenant (Ezekiel 16.59-60, Ephesians 5.25-31)
After the appropriate judgment against God’s bride, Israel, he promises to establish a new covenant with her. V. 59:
59 “For thus says the Lord God: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, 60 yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant.
In other words, when the sin of God’s people has finally been dealt with, when the appropriate punishment for that sin has been given, he will bring her back to him. He will renew her; he will cleanse her; he will once again show his love to her.
Now, this is a beautiful picture, but it presents a problem, doesn’t it?
We know from the rest of the Bible that the wages of sin is death (Romans 3.23). The only appropriate punishment for sin is death, and God promised death to this adulterous bride. So how will God ever establish this new covenant with his people, if he has to punish their sin? How can he love his people and punish their adultery at the same time?
The answer to that question is Jesus. Go with me to Ephesians 5.25.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish...
God promsied to punish his people’s sin. At the same time, he promised to establish a new covenant with his people. So at the right time, God fulfilled both promises, in a completely unexpected way.
He sent his Son, Jesus, who loved his people, and gave himself up for her. Jesus lived a perfect life—the perfect life God’s people should have lived—and he took on himself all of their sin. On the cross, he took their sin on himself so completely that he became that sin (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.21—and when you think of that, remember Ezekiel 16: the “whoring” of the adulterous wife? That is what Jesus became on the cross).
Once Jesus had taken all of the sin of every one of God’s covenant people on himself, God poured out all of his wrath against that sin, by pouring out his wrath against Christ.
In other words, Christ suffered the punishment described in Ezekiel 16, so that we wouldn’t have to.
He was stripped of his clothes, and exposed before everyone, and beaten, and nailed to a cross, and left for hours to suffocate from the weight of his own body on his tortured lungs.
He gave us his perfect life, and was punished for our sin.
God’s promise of judgment and redemption in Ezekiel 16 finds its fulfillment in Jesus.
Because of what Jesus did, we are now united to him, reconciled to his Father, and heirs to eternal life with him.
That reconciliation is better than we ever dared imagine, and the image God uses to describe it is, once again, a sexual image. Look at Ephesians 5.31:
31 “Therefore [because of this reality of what Christ did for us] a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Do you know what that means? that “the two shall become one flesh”? That’s Bible-speak for sexual intercourse. In v. 31 Paul quotes Genesis 2.24—it’s what God said at the very first marriage between the first man and the first woman. This is God’s intention for men and women—that they would come together, one man and one woman, to form a new family, and that they would come together in sexual intimacy and become “one flesh.”
That phrase—“the two shall become one flesh”—is perfect. And we don’t need to take the Bible’s word for this—science shows us that this “one flesh” imagery is actually pretty apt.
Neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen writes, “Whenever a person is sexually involved with another person, neurochemical changes occur in both their brains that encourage limbic, emotional bonding. Yet limbic bonding is the reason casual sex doesn’t really work for most people on a whole mind and body level. Two people may decide to have sex ‘just for the fun of it,’ yet something is occurring on another level they might not have decided on at all: sex is enhancing an emotional bond between them whether they want it or not.”
I love it when science confirms what the Bible has been telling us for millenia. Anyone who has had sex with an exclusive partner can attest to the truth of this—nothing brings you closer to another person than enjoying the intense physical pleasure of sexual intimacy with them.
That is why when Paul talks about marriage, and talks about sex, the point he’s trying to make is so astonishing—the point he nails home with astounding force in v. 32:
32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
Make sure you see that: I’m not making this up.
This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it [the one-flesh union between a man and a woman, created through sexual intimacy] refers to Christ and the church.
The Big Idea
We asked at the beginning why God made sex the way he did.
And I said that God gives us the answer to that question not just in the what of Ezekiel 16 and Ephesians 5, but in the how. He’s teaching us one thing through the content of these passages, while teaching us another thing through the images of these passages.
In Ezekiel 16, God used sexual language—the language of adultery and prostitution—to help us understand how horrible our sin is: he uses sex as a means to help us understand why we need him.
And in Ephesians 5, God uses sexual language—the language of sexual intimacy within the covenant of marriage—to help us understand how wonderful our union with him is: he uses sex as a means to help us understand how deep and joyful intimacy with him is.
Sex itself exists for other reasons, of course; but it is profoundly significant that when God chooses to teach us about the gravity of sin and the joy of union with him, he uses sex to do it.
Because if sex is an appropriate tool to teach us about these infinitely, eternally weighty subjects, what does that tells us about sex?
John Piper said it this way: “God created us in his image, male and female, with personhood and sexual passions so that when he comes to us in this world there would be these powerful words and images to describe the promises and the pleasures of our covenant relationship with him through Christ.”
These ideas—the weight of our sin, and finding our joy in God—are often hard to grasp. So God gave us sex, not just to have babies or enjoy ourselves, but so that we might have an image to hang that idea on.
Sex exists so that when we read about the devastation of sin Ezekiel 16, and the joy of marriage in Ephesians 5, we might feel the weight of those realities.
It exists so that when we read about the horrible consequences of our own sin, we might imagine the pain of sexual sin committed against us, and feel the weight of it.
It exists so that when we read about the intimacy and pleasure that God gives us in covenant relationship with him, we might be able to look back on the sexual intimacy we have enjoyed with our spouse and say, “Oh, that’s how good this is.”
Our joy in God is not the same as our joy in sex; but when we enjoy sex, we are meant to take that joy and think, “As good as this is, as real and tangible and wonderful as this is, intimacy with God is even realer, and more tangible, and more wonderful.”
Here’s Piper again: “God made us powerfully sexual so that he would be more deeply knowable. We were given the power to know each other sexually so that we might have some hint of what it will be like to know Christ supremely.”
There are two sides to this coin.
Anyone who has been sexually abused, or whose spouse has committed adultery, can tell you how uniquely devastating sexual sin can be. Having your husband lie to you is painful; having your husband cheat on you with another woman is almost unbearable.
That is the gravity of all our sin—sex exists to help us understand how serious our sin is. That is the point of Ezekiel 16.
And on the other hand, anyone who has had good sex with his or her spouse knows how wonderful it can be. How close it brings you together. And that joy is physical, and tangible—it is not unknowable or theoretical.
Just as sexual pain helps us understand the gravity of our sin, sexual joy, enjoyed in the right way, exists to help us understand the intensity and pleasure of this undeserved relationship God has established with us. That is the point of the one-flesh union Paul talks about in Ephesians 5.
Sex does not exist mainly for having children. And it does not exist mainly for pleasure. And it does not exist mainly for us. It exists so that we might know God more fully.
So the question is, How do we resist sexual temptation, knowing what picture we’re painting with our infidelity to God?
How do we enjoy sex with our spouses, knowing the weighty realities that sex is helping us to understand?
How do we go about our sexual lives, knowing that it’s not mainly about us, but about him?
That’s for next week.