This is a picture from nearly 37 years ago—August 14, 1979. My wedding day. I’m sure you can recognize Sue because she looks exactly the same—but I’m the guy with hair. Yes—I used to have it all over my head—used a blow dryer, carried a comb—the whole deal!
Now—when Sue and I planned our marriage, like all young people, we thought we knew more than our elders. I mean, we wanted to fight silly traditions—so we got married on a Tuesday night at 7PM. My dad performed the ceremony at our church in Dover, Delaware. Four girls from the Junior High SS class that Sue taught sang. As you can see, our siblings had matching baby-blue suits and bow-ties. It was a beautiful wedding. Then, after a SIMPLE reception—and I say SIMPLE because these were the cake, punch, and nuts days—before some fool decided a wedding reception should cost more than a single-family home.
Anyhow, after a lot of well-wishing from family and friends—after feeding each other cake—and throwing the garter and bouquet Sue and I made a dash for our car while being pelted with rice. But when we tried to open the car—I saw that our friends had put tape over all the key holes—which stopped us from getting in because—this was before remote key button access. So while being pelted with MORE rice—enough to feed China—I removed the tape—unlocked the car—and we headed off. I don’t think we got all the rice out of our hair until we hit the Bay Bridge.
Our first night was spent in—the Holiday Inn of Annapolis—as romantic a place as you can imagine! I still remember our room number—200. I’ve got the receipt somewhere. Anyway, at this point our non-traditional plans backfired a bit because by the time we arrived late on that Tuesday night all the restaurants were closed. This brings up another “before” —before MACs and WENDYs were open 24 hours. Well, as proof of the fact that you can’t actually live on love—we were starving—but had to make due with “food” from the hotel vending machines.
The next morning we filled our empty stomachs with a big breakfast at Denny’s and then we headed to the Skyline Drive–where I made up for the Holiday Inn’s lack of romance with five wonderful days in a beautiful place with beautiful views—Big Meadows Lodge. Sadly, we have no pictures to share because we went on a hike on our last day and I dropped our Kodak 110 camera—very popular back then—in a waterfall. In any case, it we made such wonderful memories at Big Meadows Lodge that seven years later we went back for a second honeymoon—but that’s a story for another sermon. After those five days we headed down from the mountains back to the flatlands of Dover—where we loaded our U-haul and headed off to Louisville, Kentucky—so I could continue my studies at Southern Seminary. I still remember looking in the rear-view mirror of the U-Haul truck seeing Sue’s three little brothers waving good-bye to their big sis with tears streaming down their faces.
As I said, we’ve been married for nearly 37 years—and I’m sure Sue would agree—while like all marriages we have had our share of challenges—they have been 37 years of incredible joy—the result of the most rewarding commitment we’ve ever made. Now—if you wonder why I am in deep in “marriage memory mode”—it’s because that’s the subject Paul addresses in the next part of his letter to the church at Corinth. And—singles be patient—next week—we’ll see what one of the Bible’s most famous singles—Paul—has to say about you!
Okay—before we read our text let’s all get on the same sheet of music by reminding ourselves of the setting. The Christians in Corinth were fairly young in their faith—and, as I’ve said repeatedly, they were surrounded by sexual immorality. This combination confused them about God’s plan when it came to marriage. So they sat down one day and wrote the Apostle Paul a letter in which they shared all their questions. According to 1st Corinthians 16:17, three men from the church—Stephanus, Fortunatas, and Achaicus delivered this question-filled letter. And Paul was used to getting letters like this. He got questions from all his churches. I guess you could say that made him the “Dear Abby” of the New Testament. Now—we don’t know everything that was in this letter but several times Paul refers to its content by saying things like, “Now concerning virgins” and “Now concerning spiritual gifts.” In any case—-up until this point Paul has written about issues that HE felt were important. But now—from chapter 7 on—he devotes his time to answering these questions.
Dr. David Jeremiah points out that it is important to understand that Paul’s answers are indeed Holy Scripture. God’s Spirit is speaking through Paul here. Dr. Jeremiah says this because many people claim that chapter 7 is not inspired They point to phrases where Paul says, “But I speak this as a concession and not a command.” (verse 6)—and, “But to the rest speak, I, not the Lord” (verse 12). Well, Dr. Jeremiah is right to point this out because Paul isn’t claiming to write his own ideas. He’s just talking about things that were not said by Jesus when He was here in the flesh. The point is Paul’s words are fully inspired, they simply were not said by Jesus in the Gospels. Well, the Christians in Corinth needed these inspired words because marriage was in a mess in that city. Adultery was common practice. Slaves could be forced to be married. Daughters could be sold like merchandise. People lived together even more than they do today.
And people who DID go to the trouble of marrying, divorced on a whim. There are records of people in that culture who had been married as many as 27, 28, 29 times.
Some men counted their years by their wives. They’d say things like, “That was the year of Contessa; that was the year of Delilah; that was the year of Mildred…” In light of all that the sexual sin that was so rampant in Corinth—and the sad state of marriage, some Christians in Corinth decided the best way to deal with the situation was NEVER to marry. They began to elevate the idea of celibacy, believing it was the purest form of life for a Christian. As you will see in the first quote from their letter, they felt that maybe it was good to touch women as little as possible—and that the only permissible time to have sexual relations was to have children.
This brings to mind a place Sue and I visited in our early married years. Not too far southeast of our apartment in Louisville is a place called Shakertown. It’s the ruins of a village where an interesting Christian sect, called Shakers lived back in Civil War Days. It’s a great place to visit. You can stay in a Shaker Hotel and enjoy their amazing lemon pie. I bring this up because, the Shakers were much like the Corinthians in that they believed in no sexual relations whatsoever—but not even for purposes of procreation. In fact, as you can see in this picture, their homes all had two doors—one for the husband and the other for the wife—and never the twain to meet.
The way they maintained their population was through adoption—which didn’t work out too well because today the Shakers are extinct. By the way, they got that name because they would stand and shake and dance in their worship services. I’m not sure but perhaps the SHAKER movement was inspired by the Christians in Corinth—because, as I said, many of them had decided the best way to deal with sexual sin was to avoid physical touch with the opposite gender whenever possible. Singles in the Corinthian church were even pressuring married people to divorce their spouses and become celibate.
Well, “Dear Abby Paul” wrote back in an attempt to correct is flawed thinking. And—we need to study Paul’s writings because, as I have said, today—2000 years later—we live in a society very much like that of Corinth in the 1st century. Sexual sin is rampant—and marriage is in trouble. Statistics show that the institution of marriage—this first good gift from God to mankind—has seen far better days. In 2011 the Pew Research Center found that 51% of Americans were married, compared to 72 % in 1960. And while the number of people getting married has taken a big drop the number of people living together has taken a big rise. Less than half a million n couples were living together in 1960 compared to 7.5 million in 2010. On top of this—divorce rates continue to rise. Okay with all that in mind—take your Bibles and turn to 1st Corinthians 7 and follow along as I read verses 1-16.
1 – Now for the matters you wrote about: (and here’s that first quote I mentioned) “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
2 – But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.
3 – The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife,and likewise the wife to her husband.
4 – The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.
5 – Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time,so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
6 – I say this as a concession, not as a command.
7 – I wish that all of you were as I am.But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
8 – Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.
9 – But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry,for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
10 – To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.
11 – But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.And a husband must not divorce his wife.
12 – To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord):If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.
13 – And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.
14 – For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
15 – But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.
16 – How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband?Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Okay—relying on Paul’s letter—as Christians what can we do to make our marriages succeed? How can we shine the light of our faith in our marriages? What is it that makes marriage truly beautiful? These are relevant questions because in spite of the sad state of marriage today all people still long for oneness. They want deep, satisfying marriages. Elizabeth Cody writes, “In this age, when we run from reliance on others and celebrate our own (ultimately futile) autonomy, it’s nice to sometimes say, ‘I’m sad. Hold me.’ Or to know that if your car breaks down at the airport, there’s someone who’ll drive 50 miles round-trip to pick you up. No questions asked. And as we hang up the phone, our mate’s reassurances still echoing, we hear a faint murmur of the holy.”
Well, based on Paul’s writing here—how do we foster that kind of oneness? How do we have a marriage relationship like that? In answer to these questions Paul emphasizes the importance of two things.
(1) The first is—SEX!
Yes—you heard me correctly. Paul calls for husbands and wives to enjoy physical intimacy. Look back at verses 2 and 3. He says, “…each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife,and likewise the wife to her husband.” Any AMEN’S out there? Feel free to say that because the Bible affirms the fact that physical intimacy is a vitally important part of a healthy marriage.
Okay—to give you time for your blushes to fade let me ask a question. Have you ever noticed that television shows and movies include a lot of sex? I know that’s a dumb question—but hang with me a moment. Have you also noticed that all this sexual activity is almost NEVER between people who are married to each other? I mention this because Hollywood’s underlying message is that married couples aren’t passionate and don’t enjoy sex. But this is just not true. Over and over again studies show that healthy married couples have more sex and more satisfying sex than these one-night stands that Hollywood advocates. And this makes sense because physical intimacy was God’s idea. He gave it to husbands and wives so that they could share deep pleasure and satisfying oneness.
James Merrit boldly writes, “God has a plan for everything, including sex. And God’s plan for the normal, natural sexual drive and desire that He put within every one of us is that the sexual drive and desire be fulfilled. That divine plan for sex can be summed up in one word, and that word is ‘marriage.’ God never intended for sex to be between a woman and a woman. God never intended for sex to be between a man and a man. God never intended for sex to be between a man and a woman. God intended for sex to be between a HUSBAND and a WIFE.”
God designed physical intimacy as an integral part of the relationship between husband and wife. In fact, according to Paul, there are only three conditions under which spouses should deprive one another sexually:
- by mutual consent—-you both agree to it for some reason,
- for a time—a specified temporary period,
- and third, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.
To put it all together, the only time intimacy is to be interrupted in marriage is when there is something happening in your lives that’s so consuming, so dramatic—that you agree together to put your sexual appetites on hold for a while as you devote yourselves to prayer. Maybe it’s a severe illness or a major life decision that’s weighing in the balance about your future—maybe you are searching the will of God on something. Maybe it’s a rebellious son or daughter that you’re praying for. Whatever it is, you’re putting everything else on hold so you can pray. But Paul says, when this temporary time period is over, “…come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
And again, please understand—the Bible isn’t advocating sex on demand—no it’s underscoring the role that spouses’ PHYSICAL relationship plays in deepening their oneness. And by the way, I believe that when the Bible describes sex as “knowing” the person—it’s not just referring to a physical act. It’s linking THAT to really KNOWING the person. These two things are inter-related. The better you know each other, the better your physical relationship will be. So—without getting too personal, let me just ask: how well do you know the inner world of your husband or wife? Do you know their love language? Do you know their needs? Do you know their fears—their current struggles? If you can’t answer those questions—then you need to work on that because that kind of KNOWING is an integral part of the OTHER kind of knowing. The physical act is an overflow of a growing, KNOWING relationship—a deepening friendship.
Of course there are BARRIERS to this intimacy all spouses long for—and I want to take a few moments to talk about that.
One barrier is BUSY-NESS.
I mean, knowing another requires conversations—which take time and energy and many times our schedules prevent that from happening. In his book, Tender Love, Bill Hybels writes, “Busyness is a fun killer. It’s vital to balance the competing demands in your life so you can make marriage-building a priority. Do some of the crazy things you did together when you were dating. Remember how good it feels to hold your spouse’s hand on a walk around the block? Go out on picnics in the middle of the woods. Find a secluded beach and do…well, whatever comes naturally. Life is too short to be driven continually by Day-Timers, calendar and watches. Laugh a lot. Enjoy each other. Love must rest on trust, honesty and plain old fun. It is only when those foundations are built and maintained that oneness, the self-giving union of two souls, is possible.”
Well—when was the last time you and your spouse had FUN? When was the last time you laughed together? When was the last time you stopped hurrying around enough to have a good conversation? Don’t let busy-ness come between you and your wife or husband.
And then, the MAIN barrier to intimacy and oneness is just plain SELFISHNESS.
In fact, this is not just a barrier to the physical part of marriage—it’s a barrier to the institution of marriage itself. I mean, sadly, in today’s culture people use a very selfish checklist to look for a spouse. For example:
- The person has to be physically attractive.
- There has to be sexual chemistry.
- The person has to be perfectly compatible.
And I know those are important things—but do you see the selfishness of that mind set? Many of today’s singles look for a spouse who will perfectly satisfy THEM. Well, that’s not how it works. Marriage is about meeting your spouse’s needs—not finding a spouse to meet yours.
Joni Erickson Tada—who is a quadriplegic with TONS of needs writes, “I never got married to get my needs met. My husband does not exist to meet my needs. I exist to meet his needs. And incidentally, while I’m doing that, a couple of my needs might get met. Surprise, surprise! That is the joy, I think, of being married!” Joni points to a powerful truth. When both spouses focus on meeting the other’s needs—their needs are met and an incredibly BEAUTIFUL marriage grows!
I like what Tim Keller says. he writes, “Real marriage requires two completely well-adjusted individuals with very little in the way of emotional neediness.” And he’s right. Marriage is not about finding the right person. It’s about being the right person. It’s not about getting. It’s about giving. Well, this selfish mentality is a barrier to the physical intimacy God intends in marriage. It’s not about YOU—it’s about your spouse—and this selfless principle includes sex. Do you remember how Paul put it? He said, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”
Another form of selfishness is pornography. It puts a barrier between a husband and wife that is very difficult to overcome. This subject was the cover story in a recent issue of Time magazine.
The story says research confirms the fact that many men today are literally unable to enjoy intimacy with their wives because their brains have been programed by porn. They have conditioned themselves NOT to be stimulated by their wives. This disorder is so prevalent it has a medical name—I mean, even our secular world is admitting that porn is a terrible thing. It literally warps a person. By this way this proves a person can be conditioned such that they are stimulated by things that are NOT natural. My point is that a person can be trained so as to encourage same sex attraction.
Well, husbands and wives need to remove these barriers to sexual intimacy—because under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul says that sex is a vitally important part of a healthy marriage.
(2) The other thing Paul says contributes to the beauty of marriage is COMMITMENT.
Look at verses 10 and 11 where he says, “A wife must not separate from her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. Paul is referring to a commitment in marriage to stay together no matter what. I think of it as is the soil that makes it possible for a beautiful marriage to grow. I once saw the following saying on a church marquee: “The most difficult years are those following the wedding.” And of course all marriages include difficult at times—but to build a beautiful marriage—one that satisfies our need for oneness—spouses must keep their vow to stay together all their lives—“‘til death do us part.” You see, hanging in there and working through the inevitable difficulties that come from two sinners living under the same roof DEEPENS love and increases intimacy!
I’m reminded of the joke about a woman who had been married to the same husband for seventy years and decided to petition the court for a divorce. The judge asked her, “After all of these years? Why?” She answered, “Look…enough is enough!” Well, couples must never think enough is enough. They must have the mindset that their relationship is a permanent one.
Last week we talked about SUPER-GLUE. Well, in Genesis God says that in marriage, husband and wife are “united” to one another. And the Hebrew here for “united” means “to glue or to cling” in a lasting sense. A literal translation would be this: “to meld two separate entities together to form a permanent bond.” This is the way marriage was intended to work. God designed it to be a permanent deal—a life-long union. Remember, Jesus said that “…what God has joined together none should separate.” (Matthew 19:6) And our Lord did not issue this command to restrict us or to make us miserable. It is just that as the Inventor of marriage, He knows that real love and genuine relational fulfillment exist only in conditions where there is long-term trust. He knows that our dreams for marriage only become reality within a permanent commitment.
Years ago I came across an article in the Washington Post by Abigail Trafford entitled, “In the End Love Prevails.” Ms. Trafford began her report with the story of Jim and Nell Hamm, a married couple enjoying the golden years of life. While the couple was on a hike in California a mountain lion attacked Jim. Nell grabbed a log and started hitting the beast—and eventually the lion let go of her husband and ran off. When asked about her bravery she said, “We were fighting for his life, and we fought TOGETHER like we’ve done with everything for 50 years now.” Nell went on to list all the benefits they have reaped from their long-term commitment—and Trafford built on Nell’s testimony by citing statistics that show that a special blessing waits for marriages that stay together for life. And she was right to do this because studies show that relationships may be tough, but they get better with age and because they do, older couples are happier—and more satisfied than younger couples. For example, Laura Carstensen, Director of the Longevity Center at Stanford says, “Long-lasting love GROWS. Even unhappy couples get happier if they manage to stay together.” In short, researchers who investigate later-life marriage have discovered the advantage of age in love. They have found that older people are better at resolving problems and keeping the flame of attachment alive than younger Romeos and Juliets. Robert Levenson says, “Older couples develop an ability to use positive emotions like affection more effectively, to calm themselves down, to negotiate conflict—and regulate emotions when they get into areas of disagreement.” His studies show that older marriages have a reduced potential for conflict and greater potential for pleasure. All this shows the perfection of God’s design because these studies prove that the longer we are married, the better, the more wonderful marriage gets.
Browning was right when he wrote, “Grow old with me the best is yet to be!” As the years go by our commitment empowers our love to grow deeper and we are able to draw more strength from our relationship. Spouses who give up don’t know what they are missing! As Trafford put it, “We have something to look forward to as we grow old as spouses. We may not be able to run as fast or hear as well, but we’re better at what matters most: love.”
I’m reminded of a story from the life of Winston Churchill. He was known not only for his courage in WWII but for the tender love that grew between him and his wife. They were married for 55 years and it is said that one day toward the end of his life, someone asked him if he could live his life all over again what would he choose to be. He replied, “Mrs. Churchill’s second husband.”
Well, related to this long term commitment, at the end of our text, Paul answers a question about being married to an unbeliever. Someone in Corinth wanted to know if it’s okay to divorce your husband or wife if they don’t follow Jesus. And to be sure, spiritual mismatch brings all kinds of strains to a marriage. There are strains over differences in moral convictions, strains over how to raise kids. There are financial strains. There’re conflicts between a believer and non-believer over tithing issues. There are strains over time involvement and servanthood in church ministry. But, Paul says that in spite of those strains—don’t use that as a reason to end the marriage. He reminds them that their faith will bless their spouse and their children. Listen—do you know how many followers of Jesus it takes to make a Christian home? One. Just one believer living out his or her faith. Everyone else in that home is blessed by that. Of course living in a home with another Christian doesn’t make your husband or children Christians, but it has a sanctifying influence in them. There is going to be inevitable spill-over because God can’t pour out blessings into the life of that believer in that house and not have it affect the others. It’s like if your spouse had a relative that you didn’t even know that died and left them ten million dollars. You would enjoy the fruit of that. You would cash in on the benefit of that. And the same idea is here. If you’re married to a non-believer, you’re going to have an overflowing effect of them—hopefully a good one! So, according to the Bible you’re to stay devoted to them. Think of it this way—who has a better opportunity to lead a person to Jesus than a spouse? Paul does acknowledge that sadly that doesn’t always happen—sometimes the unbelieving spouse leaves and decided to end the marriage—-and he says if that happens let him or her go. But until then, do your best to be a Christian spouse. Show them Jesus love.