One of the most difficult area of hermeneutics deals with human sexuality. After all, if only love matters, why would premarital sex or homosexual sex be sinful? And yet the scriptures clearly frown on sex outside of marriage.
Well, the solution is not to buy a book on hermeneutics. After all, most of us already own several copies of the best one: the Bible. To sort out the hermeneutics of sexuality, let’s look at the words of Jesus and Paul to see how they interpret and apply the scriptures. What principles underlie their teaching? What are their hermeneutics?
Perhaps the most comprehensive lesson taught by Jesus on sexuality is found in Matthew 19 —
(Mat 19:3-6 ESV) 3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Notice how Jesus reasons. He was being asked about the Law of Moses, because he was being asked about the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 — a hotly contested question in rabbinic circles in those days.
[Matthew 19 is, of course, a key passage in the divorce and remarriage controversy. I’m not really interested in getting into that controversy, having covered it very extensively in the ebook available as a free download “But If You Do Marry ….” My views on the subject are laid out in considerable detail there.]
But Jesus doesn’t even refer to Deuteronomy. Rather, he goes straight to Genesis 1 and 2 — regarding God’s creation as it existed before the Fall of Man in chapter 3. He starts with the ideal. And Jesus says that the relationship of Adam and Eve prior to the Fall is the ideal by which questions regarding human sexuality must be judged.
Because the husband is to be joined to his wife — to “hold fast” (“cleave” in the KJV) — the ideal is that the husband and wife, once married, are to stay married. However, the marriage is to be characterized by a “one flesh” relationship. That is, the command is not merely to stay married but also to be in right relationship so that the marriage may continue.
This does not mean that the marriage cannot be ended. Jesus didn’t say, “What therefore God has joined together, man cannot separate.” No, he said it’s a sin to break a marriage covenant — not that the covenant is unbreakable.
Less obvious but just as important as his reference to the marriage and “one flesh” relationship described in Genesis 2 is Jesus’ reference to Genesis 1: “he who created them from the beginning made them male and female.” Why is this important? Because it’s descriptive of God’s purpose in making mankind in his image.
(Gen 1:26-27 ESV) 26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
The end of verse 27 is something of a surprise. God describes making man “in our image, after our likeness,” and then we read that God created them “male and female.” But God is not male and female (not in a sexual sense).
Rather, there seems to be two points. First, that both the male and the female were equally made in the image of God — so that gender is not inherent in or a barrier to being in God’s image.
The rabbis taught that only males were truly in the image of God, because perfection requires circumcision, which can only be true of men. But this is not the teaching of Moses in Genesis.
Second, it is not good for the man to be alone. The male is not the complete image of God. He is completed by the female.
God is spoken of in the plural here (“let us make”) for the first time in scripture. The fact that God exists in eternal, plural relationship within himself (themselves? Triunity is so hard on pronouns!) causes him to create humans who may and should exist in relationship with each other. Indeed, the relationship of husband and wife likely comes closest in human experience to the internal relationship of the Trinity. Husband and wife — in a healthy marriage — become more than one flesh. They nearly become one person.
(Gen 1:28 ESV) 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
God commanded male and female to “be fruitful and multiply.” Obviously, this is a command to engage in heterosexual sex. Really. Of course, Genesis 2 shows that this is to be between a man and his wife, not just any two humans of opposite gender.
As a result, the First Century rabbis taught that a man must marry and produce children to be pleasing to God. For a man to be single was to violate the Law, as interpreted at the time of Jesus.
And yet Jesus was single. And Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 7 that it is no sin to be single — contrary to centuries of rabbinic instruction, which actually had a certain logic to it. I think it would be fair to conclude that Jesus and Paul took the command to “be fruitful and multiply” to apply to humanity generally but not to all humans, who for reasons driven by the gospel might choose or be required to remain single and childless.
The expectation that a man would marry and produce children admitted to exceptions, even as understood by the rabbis. The key distinction, as we’ll see, is that Jesus and Paul both taught that the choice to be single is a gospel question — not a question of selfish desires. It’s question to be placed on the altar before God.1
Paul, of course, teaches the propriety of being single in 1 Corinthians 7. Jesus teaches the same lesson in very different terms in Matthew 19. In both cases, the justification for being single is for the sake of the Kingdom or gospel.
[to be continued]
1. I always get in trouble when I suggest that the question of whether to marry or have children is of concern to God — and should be answered in submission to the gospel and the cross. In America, this is considered no one’s business but the couple’s. But that’s not a scriptural thought. We are not autonomous individuals and couples. When we become Christians, we give everything we have and are to God.
(Rom 6:17-19 ESV) 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members [body parts!] as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members [body parts] as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
Paul speaks plainly. Our bodies — including our sexual organs — belong to God as “slaves of righteousness.” Our sex organs and wombs do not belong to us. We gave them to God when we were baptized.