Earlier this year we produced copies of Mark’s Gospel with the testimonies of people in our church. Here’s one of those testimonies which we also filmed.
One of the common lines of liberal theology is that the church created Christianity and in so doing distorted or institutionalised the radical message of Jesus.
In fact this is not a new phenomenon. This is the issue which is address by John in his first letter. His message is simple: We have no Christ other than the Christ presented to us by the apostles.
1 John is written reassure the members of a church after some leading figures have left them. They have left a particular local church, claiming to follow a superior version of Christianity. But John says they went out from ‘us’ (in contrast to ‘you’, his readers). ‘They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.’ (1 John 2:19-20)
The ‘us’ here is the apostles (as 1:1-4 makes clear). The reason these people left the church is actually that they have left apostolic Christianity. And to leave apostolic Christianity, says John, is to leave the truth (2:20-27). Why? Because the apostles were the ones who heard and saw and touched Jesus – as John repeatedly emphasises in 1:1-4.
Not only were they eye witnesses of Jesus, but Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit to testify to the truth about Jesus so that the apostolic testimony would be accurate (John 15:26-27; 16:12-15). Paul’s inclusion among the apostles was always going to be controversial, but that issue was resolved during his lifetime, nearly 2,000 years ago.
God revealed himself in Jesus, the Word-made-flesh. How do we have access to that revelation? Through the testimony of the apostles who heard and saw and touched Jesus. How do we have access to the apostolic testimony? In the Spirit-inspired writings of the New Testament. To pit Jesus against Paul is to claim to have a better grasp of the person of Christ than the Spirit-inspired eye-witnesses.
In a previous post I argued that sex is more significant than our culture thinks it is. Our culture see it simply as an act of physical pleasure. But in fact sex binds us to another in a profound – in a way mirrors the union between Christ and his church
But in other ways sex has become too significant in our culture. It has become a way of salvation.
- Young girls want acceptance and look for it in teenage sex.
- Young men want respect or power and look for it in sexual conquests.
- Single people want fulfilment and look for it in a life partner.
- The middle-aged want life as death approaches and look for it in a younger lover.
- Men want to be adored or to be in control and look for it the fantasy world of porn where every women gives herself to you.
We look for our personal version of salvation in sex or in romance. To be someone, to be whole, to be worthwhile we’re told we need to have sex or we need to have romance. It’s salvation by sex. Sex gives me meaning, respect, belonging, identity. We need someone to cry, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I want you, I desire you, I need you.’
And then the Bible comes along and says: ‘The person who marries his fiancée does well, and the person who doesn’t marry does even better.’ (1 Corinthians 7:38 NLT) It says it’s good not to get married because then you can focus on serving Christ (7:29-34). You can have a complete life, a whole life, a fulfilled life without sex.
I know that sounds unbelievable in our culture. But it was just as revolutionary in Paul’s day. In Paul’s day having a family was everything. Your focus wasn’t personal success, but family honour. So to be unmarried was to be a no-one. You weren’t a man until you get married. A woman without children was considered cursed.
But not for those in Christ. In Christ there is a new creation. A whole new world opens up. In Christ it’s good to get married and it’s good not to get married.
Why? Because sex is not the definition of a good life or a fulfilled life. Think about Jesus. Jesus didn’t get married and didn’t have sex. Was his life a lesser life? Was his life unfulfilled? Was he sub-human? Of course not. Some of you are desperate for a husband or wife or just sex. Maybe you think your life won’t be complete without them. Was the life of Jesus incomplete? Was it empty?
We don’t find salvation in sex because we are made for more. Verses 13-14 say our bodies are made for God and he will raise them up. We’re made for God and we are made for eternity. Our culture has removed God and eternity out of the picture. So what we’re left with is just temporary consciousness. But we still want our lives to matter. So we’re desperate to find someone to whom we matter.
- Christians have hope. Paul can say that life without sex is a good option because Paul has hope. We don’t have to have it all in this life. We have a life to come.
- Christians have God. We’re made for God. Sex can’t deliver. A partner can’t deliver. Not on this scale. Because they can’t substitute for God.
So if you look for sex or romance or even marriage to fulfil you, to complete you, to satisfy you then you will be disappointed. Mr Right always turns out to be Mr Wrong. Men are not God. We’re just rather sad, pompous, lazy, sinful people with bad breath. And sex is never the way it’s portrayed in the movies or in porn. Sex is not God. It can’t deliver what God delivers. It can’t substitute for God.
Don’t get me wrong. Sex does its job beautifully. It binds couples together in life-long union. And it does that job wonderfully. But don’t make sex do a job it’s not designed to do. Sex is very significant, but it’s not that significant – it’s not a substitute for God.
If you think sex or porn will make you accepted or offer a way of escape or make you feel powerful then you’re setting yourself up for slavery. Because they won’t deliver and so you’ll look for more and more and more until you are sucked in and enslaved. Some of you know what I’m talking about.
Or you may think that what you need most is a partner, that getting married is what will satisfy you and make your life complete. The problem is if you don’t get married your life will be self-fulfilling prophecy: you will live an empty and bitter life – when all the time the fulness of God is offered to you.
But thinking marriage or sex matter most not only harms your life if you don’t get married, it also harms your life if you do get married. If you think marriage will make you complete then you’re loading up a set of expectations on your poor spouse that they can never hope to fulfil. They can only disappoint you – no matter how great they are – because you’ve set them up as a God-substitute. It’s not fair. Some of you have problems in your relationships because you expect too much of your partner. If you’re not satisfied single then you won’t be satisfied married because marriage cannot be a substitute for God. Here’s a recent review of a book called Couples: The Truth:
This romantic ideology … is pernicious, cultivating fabulous expectations that can only result in massive disappointment. As other social ties have weakened, marriage has sucked all our wishes into its orbit to the point where it is viewed as a kind of magic, with the quasi-spiritual notion of a ‘soul-mate’. ‘We have been seduced by the fairy tale that we should be able to find everything we need from just one person … You should try to lower your expectations where your loved ones are concerned. Not only are they other than you think they are, but no one could ever be all good …’
True, expect for that last phrase – ‘no-one could ever be all good’. There is someone who is all good, a soul-mate who saves our souls, a loved one who gave everything.
Only by finding completeness in Jesus can you be free to be the husband or wife you should be – truly loving your partner rather than using them for your own fulfilment.
Only by finding completeness in Christ can you be truly satisfied – whether you’re married or single.
In a previous post we addressed the question of why Christians seem so hung up about sex. We saw that our bodies matter and what we do with our bodies matter.
This is Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6. In verse 18 he says: ‘Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.’
Sexual immorality in all its forms is against yourself. This seems a bit odd. Is this proof of a Christian hang up about sex – that sex is specially bad. What about drug abuse or suicide? Surely they too are sins against your body.
The point is the Bible is talking about more than just the physical stuff we’re made from. It’s not just talking about bone and muscle. By ‘body’ it means our total selves. Who we are. Our identity.
The key idea is this: Sex is never just sex. It’s more significant that we normally think. It’s not just a physical act.
Verse 16: ‘Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will be become one flesh.”’ When it talks about becoming ‘one in body’ or ‘one flesh’ it doesn’t mean our flesh is fused. It means your whole self is involved. You’re whole self is given away. You’re whole self, you personality, your identity is bonded to another person. Sex is not just a physical act than leaves the ‘real you’ unaffected. It profoundly changes you.
We see this in life all the time. If sex is just like eating cake then why does adultery feel so painful? Because sex involves your whole self and so people feel personally betrayed. Because sex is not just a physical act. Your whole self is involved.
God designed sex as a way to give yourself to another. The clothes come off so you’re exposed. You give you body to the embrace of another. You enter or are entered. Your very self is fused with another person. The word ‘unite’ in verse 16 means ‘to bind, to glue, to cement’. You’re glued together. The two become one.
That’s why sexual sin is a sin against your body, your self, your identity. If giving yourself in sex is not done in the context of life-long commitment, the result is deep pain. It messes with you in a profound way.
PVA glue is stronger than wood. If you glue two bits of wood together and then pull them apart it’s not the glue that breaks, but the wood. It splinters. And that’s what happens whenever you have sex outside of marriage: you splinter your soul.
But when that physical oneness goes together with a whole-person and whole-life oneness, the result is deep wholeness and fulfilment. It’s a beautiful and wonderful thing. It’s an amazing gift from God.
It’s a sign of God’s own giving of himself to us that we might be one with him. The Bible says marriage and sex are a picture of Christ’s relationship with his people. At the cross Christ gave himself in love to save people, to take the judgment we deserve, to cleanse us and make us beautiful. And he commits himself to us totally. He’s made a covenant (like a marriage covenant) to love us and care for us.
God invented sex to show us his passion. All the pain you feel around sex is like the pain he feels at our unfaithfulness. All the joy you feel around sex is like his joy at loving his people. All the sacrifices you make are the like the sacrifice of Jesus for us.
So God says that sex belongs only in marriage not to stop us having fun, but to stop us getting hurt. It’s not because sex is bad. It’s because sex is too precious and too powerful and too life-changing to be unleashed without life-long commitment.
This is a high view of sex. It’s not sex as ‘appetite’ to be indulged whenever. Nor is it sex as ‘dirty’ to be avoided whatever. It’s sex as a profound, beautiful, pleasurable, relationship-binding gift. Sex is more significant than you think.
But does all this mean you’ve had it if you remain single? We turn to that issue in a future post.
The Glory of the Story is his retirement project. It’s a popular, devotional introduction to biblical theology. It works through the Old Testament story, all the time showing how it points to Jesus. There are 366 daily readings which are undated so you can start at any time and read at your own pace. It’s available as a Kindle book for just $2.99 or £1.99. I’ll post a few extracts over the coming weeks, but you can use Amazon’s Look Inside facility to see for yourself.
Earlier this year we produced copies of Mark’s Gospel with the testimonies of people in our church. Here’s one of those testimonies which we also filmed.
Why do Christians get so hung up about sex? What’s all the fuss about? Why make it such a big deal? Perhaps you’ve heard sentiments likes that. Maybe you’ve thought them yourself. What’s wrong with sex between consenting adults? It’s not breaking any law. It’s a natural desire. Why suppress it?
These are the questions I want to address in a short series of posts.
Actually they’re not new questions. Two thousands years ago people in Corinth were saying similar sorts of things. We mustn’t think that people in Bible times were prudish. Or that the Bible’s teaching was simply a product of its time. Not at all. The culture of Corinth was very promiscuous – more so that 21st century Britain. So what God says here was just as counter-cultural then as now.
In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul responds to some of the slogans the people of Corinth used to express their view of sex.
1. Verse 12: ‘I have the right to do anything’
‘You can’t tell me what to. I have my rights. It’s not breaking any law.’ Paul’s response is: ‘Not everything is beneficial.’ It doesn’t make it a good thing. Legality is not the only criteria. ‘You can’t stop me,’ may be true. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
2. Verse 12: ‘I have the right to do anything’
Same slogan. This time Paul gives a different response: ‘I will not be mastered by anything.’ Don’t give your freedom away. It’s not freedom if you’re pressured by your friends, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. It’s not freedom if you can’t control yourself, if you’re addicted to porn – that’s slavery. Don’t fool yourself.
3. Verse 13: ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food’
It’s a way of saying ‘sex for the body and the body for sex’. In other words, ‘I’m made with sexual desires. It’s natural, normal, instinctive. It’s no more significant than eating cake. I want cake, I eat cake, I enjoy cake. I want sex, I have sex, I enjoy sex. Why not? Why not have fun? We shouldn’t repress our natural desires.’
Paul’s counter slogan is: ‘the body for the Lord and the Lord for the body.’ That’s what verse 13 says literally. Jesus gave himself to save your body and you’re to give your body for his glory.
Then Paul expands this with a Christian view of the body.
1. Your body is raised by God (14)
Verse 14: ‘By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.’ Your body is not a temporary thing. You’re not just deciding for a moment of pleasure. Your actions have eternal consequences.
2. Your body is united with Christ (15-17)
Verse 15: ‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!’ Christians are united to Christ, representatives of Christ. We’re his presence in the world. Where you go, Christ goes. What you do, Christ does. It’s exciting – what a privilege. But it’s also sobering – what a responsibility.
3. Your body is the home of the Spirit (19)
Verse 19: ‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?’ The Old Testament temple was a holy place, the symbol of God’s holy presence. You wouldn’t dream of having sex in the temple. But now we are God’s holy place, his temple, his home. God has consecrated us (verse 11).
4. Your body is bought by God (19-20)
Verse 19-20: ‘You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.’ Some people have sex because they feel worthless, because they don’t feel they’re worth keeping pure. Other people have sex or use porn so they can feel worthwhile, wanted or worshipped by others. But this is how much you’re worth: you’re worth the blood of God’s own Son. You’re worth the most precious thing in the universe. If you’re a Christian your body doesn’t belong to you. It’s not yours to give away. It belongs to God and it’s to be used for his honour.
All of which means that our bodies and what we do with our bodies really matters.
Every Christian has the Holy Spirit. You can’t be a Christian without the Holy Spirit because it’s the Spirit who gives faith. But I wonder if some of us don’t ‘feel’ the work of the Spirit because we’re not on the frontline. We’re not on the frontline of the battle against sin or we’re not on the frontline of the battle for mission.
Imagine you’ve been driving a small car with a beat up engine which struggles to go much over 30 mph. Then one day someone gives you a powerful new car with a large turbo-charged engine. A week later you shock them by saying, ‘I haven’t really noticed much difference.’ But then they discover that you’ve never driven it over 30 mph. You’ve got this car that can accelerate to 70 mph in three seconds. But you don’t notice the difference because you’ve never hit the accelerator. Some of us don’t ‘feel’ the power of the Spirit because we’ve never hit the accelerator. Do not make your life so safe that you never have cause to notice the Spirit’s work.
Hit the accelerator and feel the wind of the Spirit.
I wonder if there is a sin that you feel powerless to change. Maybe the temptation grows so strong who feel unable to resist. Maybe it creeps up and takes you by surprise so that before you know it you’ve reacted badly. You’ve committed this sin many times. You’ve tried changes many times. But you just feel struck.
The Nicene Creed says: ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.’ If you are in Christ then the Spirit has given you life: life to live for God, life to change old habits, life to proclaim Christ’s name.
So don’t give up. Don’t give up the battle with sin. I want to encourage each one of you to think of a sin with which you struggle and decide to re-engage in the battle. Romans 8:12-13 says: ‘Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation … by the Spirit … to death the misdeeds of the body’. So let’s do battle with sin. Ask yourself four questions:
1. What excuses am I making?
Lots of us hate the effects of sin in our lives – the sense of shame or the broken relationships – but we still love the sin itself. So we blame our up-bringing or other people or our circumstances. It allows us to leave our sin alone. But if you’re not killing sin then sin will be killing you.
2. How can I flee temptation?
Don’t ask, ‘What am I allowed to do?’ or ‘What can I get away with?’ Ask yourself, ‘How far can I run? How can you avoid things that encourage you to think in a wrong way? How can you avoid situations when you might be tempted?’
3. How can I embrace God instead?
How does God offer more than your sin? How can you stir your affections so your love for Jesus is bigger than your love for sin?
4. Who can help me?
Who can you ask to encourage you, challenge you, hold you accountable? Who will tell it straight? Don’t just look for sympathy can be toxic. A little salt is a good thing. But too much salt sucks the moisture out of you. A little sympathy is good thing. But pure sympathy encourages you in your discontent or victimhood. So who will point you away from your excuses and towards Jesus?
That’s your ‘obligation’ according Romans 8:12-13. But don’t miss the main thrust of Romans 8. Verse 13 says we put to death the misdeeds of the body ‘by the Spirit’. Paul’s main point is that we have resurrection life and power. Self-improvement doesn’t work – that’s the message of Romans 7. But we’re not left to ourselves. We have the Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
So take heart. You have a one-person extreme makeover team living in you. When you resist temptation you going against the grain of your old sinful habits – and that’s tough. But you are going with the grain of the Holy Spirit. You have his desires, his life, his power – and that makes all the difference.
How do we know that the Spirit will give us life if we are in Christ? Because the Spirit has already given life to Christ and we are now in Christ. Romans 8:11 says: ‘And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.’
When God created the first man he formed him from the dust. He held, as it were, in his hand a perfectly formed human being. But it was a lifeless form. It was like a shop mannequin. But then we read: ‘the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ (Genesis 2:7) The word ‘breath’ or ‘wind’ in both Hebrew and Greek is the same as the word ‘Spirit’. God breathed his breath or his Spirit, the breath of life or Spirit of life, into the nostrils of the inert human form and it became alive.
And on the first Easter Day God did it again. There before him, as it were, was an inert human form, the dead body of Jesus. ‘Dust to dust’ we say at funerals. The body of Jesus was returning to the dust from which it had come. But once again God breathed his breath or his Spirit, the breath of life, the Spirit of life, into the nostrils of the dead human form and it became alive. And this is not a metaphor. There really was a moment in history when this happened.
That breath of life, that Spirit of life, is in you. And one day it will give life to your mortal body. This mortal body that is decaying will be resurrected to eternal life.
But notice, too, that the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is already ‘living in you’. It is not just that you will experience the resurrection power of the Spirit in the future. You already experience that resurrection power right here, right now.
• When you have faith in Christ then you are experiencing the Spirit.
• When you have any repulsion from sin then you are experiencing the Spirit.
• When you willingly serve God then you are experiencing the Spirit.
• When you joyfully sacrifice for Christ then you are experiencing the Spirit.
• When you have any affection for your life group then you are experiencing the Spirit.
The God who raised Christ from the dead is living in you by his Spirit. The Spirit who breathed life into the rotting flesh of Jesus is the Spirit who breathes life into your heart.
There is nothing that God expects you to do that you cannot do. The sin that defeats you need not defeat you. The fears that consume you need not consume you. The people who terrify you need not terrify you.