2020-6-14 The Beauty of Marriage

The Beauty of Marriage
1 Corinthians 7:1-16
June 14, 2020

Prayer for Illumination:

Lord, your Word is lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Show us the way. Lead us in the way everlasting and enable us to walk. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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.

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? [1]

This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Comedian Chris Rock has this joke, “Do you want to be single and lonely or married and bored?” That’s the common view of marriage in our culture. Turn on any number of sitcoms and you’ll see that our culture doesn’t have a high view of marriage. Marriage is seen as stifling and boring. According to Pew Research Center, in 2019 marriage rates fell 8% among Americans aged 18 and older while the rate of premarital cohabitation had rise.[2] It’s not uncommon to hear people say that marriage is a piece of paper and it doesn’t change anything. And it seems that many Christians have taken their understanding about marriage from culture.

Things in first century Corinth weren’t that different. Corinth and much of the Greco-Roman world had a relatively low view of marriage. While marriage was common, it was viewed as something that was needed for societal stability but not fulfillment or happiness. Marriage was just something that was needed to make sure that society didn’t fall into chaos.

Corinth was a hedonistic culture. And Paul has already addressed sexual immorality within the church. There were members who were visiting temple prostitutes. And he addressed that issue in chapter 6. The cultural understanding was marriage was just for the procreation of children, not the enjoyment of the couple. Instead, if a man wanted to enjoy sex he was to visit a prostitute. That was expected. That was accepted. And some in the church were doing that. Paul addressed that in chapter 6. As a reaction to the hedonism of the culture, some within the church were saying, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman”.

That view of sex is often associated with Christianity. Many outside the Church and even many inside the Church think Christianity views sex as something dirty. It’s viewed as a duty; something that must happen in marriage but not something husbands and wives are to really enjoy. I’m sure you’ve heard of the old saying, “Close your eyes and think of England”. The idea behind that saying is sex is dirty but necessary so think of your duty and get it over with. And it’s quite possibly a response to the hedonism our culture has adopted. There are those outside the Church and some inside the Church who would say Christianity teaches “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman”.

The bible has a much higher and better view of sex than that. Here in this passage, the Apostle Paul shows the beauty of marriage as he addresses issues the Corinthians have raised regarding sex and marriage.

The Beautifulness of  Marriage

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.

The Corinthians had written to Paul asking for his pastoral wisdom and advice concerning several matters. The first of which had to do with sex and marriage. As I said a few moments ago, Corinthian culture was incredibly hedonistic. Sexual promiscuity was rampant. And as a result, some in the church in Corinth had adopted an ascetic view regarding sex. They developed a view that said no one – including husbands and wives – should have sex. They had a misunderstanding that sex was dirty.

Paul responds by correcting that view and saying that given the temptation to sexual immorality, adultery or fornication that people should marry. He says that each man should marry and have a wife of his own and likewise each woman should marry and have a husband of her own. It is normal to marry. Marriage is part of God’s design for mankind. He actually instituted marriage in the covenant with creation back in Genesis 2. Marriage is not a bad thing; it is a good thing. And given the temptation to sin sexually, Paul states each man should have a wife of his own; each woman should have a husband of her own.

Paul actually goes further than that. He says, “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.” He states that as a married couple, husbands are to give their wives her conjugal rights and wives are to give their husbands his conjugal rights. What he is saying is that married couples are to have sex with each other. Give is in the present tense; meaning it is something that to be habitual. Husbands are to habitually give their wives her conjugal rights. Wives are to habitually give their husbands his conjugal rights.

The reason for that is neither spouse has authority over their own body, rather their spouse does. This is a result of the marital union. Remember from a few weeks ago we saw that sex joins people together like a welder joins two pieces of metal together? Because a couple is joined together like that, their body becomes part of their spouse’s body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

For those of us who are married, you are one flesh with your spouse. You are welded together. And because of that, your body is not your own it is your spouses. Husbands, your body is not your own it is your wife’s. Wives, your body is not your own it is your husband’s. Therefore, give your spouse their conjugal rights. Sex is something that married couples are to enjoy. God designed it that way. He designed it so that you should enjoy it in the covenant of marriage and that husbands and wives will habitually give themselves to the other in this way.

This raises an important question. What if one spouse has a lower sex drive than the other? How should we handle that? Pastor Tim Keller in his book The Meaning of Marriage says this. He writes, “Each partner in marriage is to be concerned not with getting sexual pleasure but with giving it. In short, the greatest sexual pleasure should be the pleasure of seeing your spouse getting pleasure… If your main purpose in sex is giving pleasure, not getting pleasure, then a person who doesn’t have much of a sex drive physically can give to the other person as a gift”.[3] Treat sex like a gift to your spouse and focus on their pleasure. Give to them.

Sadly many have misused this verse to justify abuse. In seminary, one woman I knew said she heard the first half of verse 4 quoted to her as support for her husband’s physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. That is wrong. That is not what the Apostle Paul is saying. That is not what Scripture says. This verse does not justify abuse. No passage of Scripture justifies abuse.

Let’s think of it this way. You love your body. You care for it. When you’re hungry, you eat. When you’re tired, you sleep. Because your wife’s body is yours, you should care for it as your care your own. Because your husband’s body is yours, you should care for it as you care for your own.

Maybe you’re wondering, “Is there ever a time where we can refrain from sex and not engage? Does Scripture allow for that?” The Apostle Paul says in verse 5, “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.” It is appropriate and right that for a limited time by mutual agreement that you refrain from engaging in sexual activity. And here Paul treats it like a fast. He treats it like a fast so that your main focus is on prayer and worship. Just as when we fast from food, our purpose is to focus more on prayer and worship of God, the same is true when couples fast from sex. They are to fast from sex and for a limited time focus on prayer and worship. And it should be for a limited time so that we are not tempted to sin by giving into sexual immorality.

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

What does Paul mean when he says “now as a concession”? What he probably is referring to is the exception. The concession is that it is ok for couples to refrain from giving the other their marital right for a season of fasting and prayer. Not everyone is gifted and able to not give into sexual immorality. That is a gift that not many have. It appears the Apostle Paul, at this point in his life, has been given that gift. At this point in his life, he is probably a widower and does not burn with passion. He has been given the gift of contentment in singleness and does not burn.

But if someone does burn then they are to marry. Calvin puts it like this, “It is one thing to burn, it is another to feel heat … What Paul calls burning is not merely a slight sensation, but being so aflame with passion that you cannot stand up against it”.[4] Feeling heat would be temptation to sin sexually every so often, as is common to all people. But to burn is a desire for sexual intimacy that is constant and the temptation to sin is constant. If that is the case, marry. It is not wise or more God honoring for you to remain single and celibate if you are unable to control desire.

Marriage is not supposed to be boring. God designed it for the mutual help of one man and one woman. In marriage, two people are welded together as one. In marriage, it is perfectly natural and beautiful for a man and woman to give themselves to each other as is their conjugal right. Marriage is beautiful.

The Ugliness of Marriage

While marriage is beautiful, we live in a fallen world and sometimes marriage isn’t always so beautiful. Sometimes marriage is ugly. Sometimes marriage is difficult. The Apostle Paul reminds us of Christ’s words in verses 10 and 11. There he writes, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

In this context, there were probably Corinthians who were wanting to separate from their spouse or even divorce them over the issue celibacy.  Remember, they had this mistaken belief that sex was dirty and something that should be avoided. Some were going so far as to actively separate from their spouse or divorce them.

Paul reminds them and us that Jesus taught that marriage is for life and divorce is only acceptable in the case of adultery. He urges them to remain married. But if they have separated over any issue other than adultery, then that person is to remain unmarried or they are to be reconciled to their spouse.

That is still true for us. We ought to not separate from our husband or our wife except in cases of adultery. Marriage is difficult and hard. And because it is difficult and the two people making up the marriage are sinners, there will be times where we wound one another. There will be times when we sin against our spouse. In those moments, instead of separating we ought to work toward reconciliation. If you’re the offending party, repent and ask for forgiveness. If you’re the offended party, forgive.

That is not the only ugliness in marriage. What if your spouse is an unbeliever? What should you do? This would have been an issue that some, maybe many, in the congregation at Corinth were experiencing. They were born, raised, and married as pagans. But then through the preaching of Paul they had come to faith in Christ while their spouse remained a pagan. What should they do?

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Paul says that just because your spouse is an unbeliever that does not dissolve the marriage covenant. If the unbelieving spouse consents to live with the believer, Paul says stay; if the unbelieving spouse does not think that they can remain in the marriage, then Paul says let them leave. In this case you are free.

But if they consent to live with you, then stay. Matthew Henry says that actually will cause us to be better husbands and wives than what we were before coming to faith. We will be more attentive to their needs. We will be more forgiving. We will be more compassionate. Therefore the marriage covenant is not dissolved but strengthened through us.

In verse 14, Paul says something amazing. He says, “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy”. That is plain and simple right? Easy to understand? Moving on.

No that’s a tough verse to understand. What exactly does Paul mean when he says that the unbelieving spouse is made holy? Holiness has three meanings in Scripture. (1) It can mean that something or someone has been cleansed; (2) it can mean that something or someone has been rendered morally pure; and (3) it can mean that something or someone has been consecrated or set apart.

It seems most likely that Paul is saying the unbelieving spouse has been set apart by nature of the union to the believing spouse. The gold in the temple was set apart not because of anything in it but because it was united to the temple, the place where was present. The altar temple was set apart because it was united to the temple. The unbelieving husband by virtue of “his union with a Christian wife, although he remained a pagan, was sanctified; he assumed a new relation; he was set apart to the service of God, as the guardian of one of his chosen ones, and as the parent of children who, in virtue of their believing mother, were children of the covenant”.[5]

Paul even goes on to say that God might be pleased to work through the believing spouse to bring the unbelieving spouse to faith.

Maybe you are married to someone who isn’t a Christian. Through you, your spouse has been set apart; your spouse has been consecrated by virtue of being united to you. If they are willing to consent to live with you, stay. God in his gracious love and kindness may work through you to bring your spouse to faith in Christ. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does. God ordinarily works through families. Ordinarily he works through believing parents to bring the gospel to their children.

God can and very could work through you to bring your unbelieving spouse to faith. Think about it. In marriage, you are most open and vulnerable with others. They see you warts and all. They will know your failures and sins as well as you do.

Now if they see how the gospel has transformed you, they will see it. They will see that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are more forgiving than you were before you came to faith in Christ. They will see that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are more compassionate than you were before you came to faith in Christ. They will see that by the power of the Holy Spirit you are more self-controlled than you were before you came to faith in Christ. Think of how powerful that witness is. They will have a front row seat to see the gospel of Christ at work in your life. And God may be pleased to work through you to bring your spouse to faith.

If you have an unbelieving spouse and they consent to stay with you, stay. You will be a far better husband or wife in this situation than you were before. And God may very well be pleased to work through you to bring them to faith.

The Marriage of the Lamb

We have spoken about some hard things this morning. Maybe some of the things Paul has addressed in this section of the letter have pricked your conscience. Maybe you have committed sexual immorality. Maybe you have committed adultery. Maybe you have separated and divorced for unbiblical reasons.

There is good news for you. If you are in Christ, you have been united to him and he has cleansed you and made you morally pure. He has given you his righteousness and his purity and he has taken on your sin and shame. Christ has taken the Church as his bride. He has washed her white in his blood. And he has united himself to her through the Holy Spirit renewing our hearts and minds and bringing us to faith. When he returns, there will be the wedding of all weddings. We will be completely and finally united to Christ in the new heavens and the new earth.

So take heart. In Christ, your sins are not counted against you because they have been nailed to the cross. That includes sins regarding sexual immorality, adultery, and divorce for unbiblical reasons. You are no longer defined by those things. You are defined by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You are united to him and he has made you holy.

Biblical marriage is beautiful and wonderful. In it, two people become one and give all of themselves to the other as is their conjugal right. Even though it has been tainted by sin and can be ugly at times, God has intended it for our mutual help and up building.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 7:1–16). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/13/8-facts-about-love-and-marriage/

[3] Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Riverhead Books, 2011), 267-268, 269.

[4] Calvin, 144.

[5] Hodge, C. (1857). An exposition of the First epistle to the Corinthians (p. 116). New York: Robert Carter & Brothers.