If people know nothing else about Christianity, they know that it doesn’t approve of sexual sin. Unfortunately, large swaths of the church have forgotten that.
Child abuse and sexually predatory behavior scandalize both church and society. Too many people who grow up in the church reach adulthood without learning biblical standards of morality. Children of ordained ministers shack up with their blessing. High ranking denominational leaders favor homosexual marriage and ordaining homosexual clergy.
Many point out that Jesus himself said nothing on the subject of homosexuality. As if that means he had no objection to it. But homosexuality is a kind of sexual sin. Jesus had plenty to say about that. Those who want to loosen the church’s traditional moral standards will find no comfort in it.
Mark 1:15 summarizes Jesus’ entire teaching: the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel. The church in America today doesn’t have much to say about repentance these days, either.
The source of all temptation
Before he started his ministry, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Jesus’ responses to the three temptations provide some general principles that need to inform all our Bible study.
Satan suggested that the famished Jesus could make bread from stones at the end of a forty-day fast. Jesus replied, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 MEV).
That’s every word. We’re not allowed to pick and choose which ones we like and discard the rest.
Next, Satan quoted some scriptures himself. He wanted Jesus to prove that he was the Son of God by performing a spectacular miracle to get everyone’s attention. There would be no harm in throwing himself to the ground from the highest point of the temple. Angels would keep him from hurting himself.
Jesus replied that general scriptural principles trump verses taken out of context.
Finally, Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he would just worship Satan. Jesus refused.
Notice that the first two temptations begin with, “If you are the Son of God . . . ” It’s the same appeal to doubt that Satan used on Eve in the garden. “Did God really say . . . ?”
Now we have bishops asking, “Did Jesus really say” that he objects to homosexuality? They’re falling into exactly the same temptation Eve fell to and that Jesus refused.
More general principles from the Sermon on the Mount
Jesus’ opponents accused him of abolishing the law. Beginning in Matthew 5:17, he vehemently denied the charge. He declared that not even the dot over an “i” or the crossing of a “t” would pass away from the law.
He then highlighted what the law said about some of the burning issues of the day. Or what some of the rabbis taught, which isn’t quite the same thing. In every case, he intensified the plain meaning of the text.
Regarding sexual sin, the law forbids adultery. Jesus said that a lustful look is the same as adultery. Wrong desire, in other words, breaks the law just as seriously as an overt act.
In his general comments about the law says, “Whoever, therefore, breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
But in his teaching about adultery, he said,
And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. For it is profitable that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body be thrown into hell (Matthew 5:29-30).
In other words, adultery isn’t “one of the least.” It’s so serious that people who commit it, even if only in their imagination, risk hell. The Greek word here is not “hades,” the general place of the dead, but “Gehenna.” That was Jerusalem’s garbage dump. Jesus––loving, compassionate Jesus––used it exactly the same way John, in Revelation, uses the image of the lake of fire.
By the way, immediately after this passage and several other times in his ministry, Jesus equated remarriage after divorce with adultery. When the people of the Old Testament proved faithless to God and worshiped idols, the prophets consistently called it adultery.
Sexual sin and redemption in Jesus’ teaching
Jesus didn’t come in the flesh to condemn. He came to redeem us from sin. But first, we have to recognize the reality of sin and repent of it.
He famously said that the greatest commandment is to love God thoroughly. The second is similar: love your neighbor as yourself. Later, he gave a new commandment: Love each other as I have loved you.
Modern Christians especially like to highlight the teaching on love. But let’s not forget that every syllable of Scripture perfectly expresses God’s love. Even the ones we don’t like much. Jesus said in Matthew 22:40 that everything in the law and prophets hangs on those two greatest commandments.
Everything includes prohibitions against sexual sin.
Two sons: who does God’s will?
In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus told a parable of two sons. The father asked both of them to work in the vineyard. The older refused but later went anyway. The younger agreed but didn’t do it. Jesus asked the Pharisees which one obeyed.
They answered correctly: the first.
Then Jesus told them that prostitutes would get into the kingdom of God before the Pharisees. Like the older brother, they had refused to obey God at first. When they heard the teaching of John the Baptist, they repented and changed their ways. Like the younger brother, the Pharisees eagerly agreed to live righteously. Except they didn’t actually do so.
Lots of people look at the parable and see only Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees. I would like to point out that as seriously as Jesus takes sexual sin, the parable shows it doesn’t necessarily keep people out of heaven. Repentance brings redemption.
The broken jar of perfume
In Luke’s telling of the story of the woman who broke a jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50), she had lived a sinful life. Luke doesn’t explicitly mention sexual sin, but that’s how people usually take it.
Jesus told her her sins were forgiven. At the time, Jesus was a Pharisee’s dinner guest. The Pharisee thought to himself that Jesus didn’t know what kind of woman she was.
Jesus did know. He knew all about her sin, and also her repentance and therefore salvation.
The Samaritan woman
Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well outside a village. He told her to go get her husband, but he was living with a man she wasn’t married to. Jesus knew her sin from the start of the conversation. It didn’t stop his willingness to talk to her, his love for her, or his desire for her salvation.
In love, therefore, he confronted her. She knew he disapproved of her behavior and tried the change the subject. When Jesus disclosed himself as the Jewish Messiah, she returned to the village with joy. It can only mean that she repented. See especially John 4:16-18.
The woman caught in adultery
In John 8, some Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus. She had been caught in the very act of adultery. The law imposed a death sentence for adultery. What would Jesus do about it?
He wrote in the sand. Whoever reported the story didn’t see what he wrote, but it fits the context that whatever it was, it reminded whoever read it of their own sin. Then he told anyone without sin to cast the first stone.
No one qualified. Everyone left.
Then Jesus asked the woman, “Where are your accusers? Does anyone condemn you?” When she observed that all who wanted to condemn her had left, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.”
It was a truly stunning act of compassion. Here was someone unquestionably guilty. Jesus declined to invoke the law of death.
And that’s why many people in the church today advocate for acceptance of gay marriage and ordaining avowed homosexuals as clergy. In the name of compassion.
Compassion counts for nothing if it isn’t Christlike compassion. Jesus’ last words to the woman were not, “Neither do I condemn you.” He followed those with his most neglected commandment: “Go and sin no more.”
To be Christlike, we as the church need to accept everyone who comes just as they are, without reservation. That’s what Jesus did, but he never left people the way he found them. The church ought to be in the business of transforming lives. So we must accept sinners and then do whatever we can so they don’t stay in sin. After all, the same Jesus who let that woman off warned that adultery risks hellfire.
Jesus in the flesh declined to act as judge. When he returns, though, it will signal the final judgment. And the final judgment will consign to hell all who refuse to repent and let go of their sin.
To the extent that the church refuses to say, “sin no more,” it refuses Christlike compassion.
Sexual sin in letters to the churches
Revelation 2 and 3 comprise letters from Jesus to seven churches.
Jesus criticized the church at Ephesus for forsaking their first love but commended them for not tolerating the teaching of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans have disappeared from history without a trace. Determining what they taught can only be conjectural.
But we do know the false teachings that the New Testament explicitly describes. Early in church history, Judaizers tried to make Gentile converts follow Jewish law. Later than that, all the errors and falsehoods involved tolerance of sexual sin. So the teaching of the Nicolaitans probably did, too.
Jesus rebuked the church at Pergamum for tolerating the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Here, he makes his criticism of sexual sin more explicit. That church followed the teachings of Balaam, who enticed Israel to sin sexually. In fact, that criticism comes first. Jesus introduced his objection to the Nicolaitans with the phrase, “in the same way.”
Nowadays we put great emphasis on tolerance. Let us not forget that Jesus does not tolerate false teaching. Notice that he commended the intolerant church and rebuked the tolerant one.
Jesus reprimanded the church at Thyatira for following the impure teachings of Jezebel. In the Old Testament, Jezebel tried to suppress the worship of God in favor of Baal worship. And Baal worship rested on a foundation of sexual immorality.
People who followed this teaching, declared Jesus, committed adultery against God. He promised terrible suffering for Jezebel and death for her followers unless they repented.
Since Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, we can be sure that what he didn’t tolerate two thousand years ago he still doesn’t tolerate today. Sin that risked hellfire when Jesus walked the earth risks it just as much today.
In condoning adultery, shacking up before marriage, and homosexuality, today’s church no longer follows the teaching of Jesus. It condones the teaching of Jezebel.